Castles of Spain
Have Bag, Will Travel
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“When you approach (Ávila) from the west almost all you see is its famous wall, a mile and a half of castellated granite… it looks brand new, so perfect is its preservation and seems less like an inanimate rampart than a bivouac of men-at-arms….” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
As we drove further south into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat high plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, lakes and rivers and snow capped mountains. Eventually we reached a desolate treeless table top plateau with a wilderness landscape with giant grey boulders lying randomly on the bracken coloured land and then we dropped a little and at eleven hundred metres started to approach Ávila, the highest provincial capital in Spain.
The “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain” was a contest/poll that was conducted by the Spanish Television Company Antena 3 and the radio broadcaster Cope. The final results were announced on 31st December 2007. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the eight out of the twelve that I have visited and having completed that I thought I might come up with a personal alternative twelve.
My number ten is the walled city of in Castilla y Leon and I have included it because for me, when I visited the city and stayed there it was one of those exceeds expectation moments.
The old city of Ávila is completely enclosed within a medieval wall and as our hotel was inside it we drove through one of the main gates and into tangle of narrow streets and immediately got lost and confused. Just as things were beginning to look hopeless we found a tourist information office and went inside for help.
The man at the desk explained that parking was very difficult (we’d guessed that already) and that it would be best to go back out of the old city and park in a public car park nearby. He gave me a street map that looked like a bowl of spaghetti and told me that it was too difficult for him to try to explain how to get out and that I should just drive around until I could find a gate.
In the morning we took the walk around the old city and first of all we walked past the serrated edged walls of the cathedral which was designed to serve a dual purpose, part religious and part military because the apse actually forms part of the defensive city walls and then we passed out through one of the main gates that led us to the Plaza de Santa Teresa, the Plaza Mayor of the city, which we found to be unusually quiet for a Saturday morning.
We walked for a while around the eastern side of the walls which are claimed to the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still manage to retain the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress. It is two and a half kilometres long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates.
Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (What we in the UK call the The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.
The entrance fee was €4 and after handing over our cash we received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate entrances to which our tickets entitled us entrance and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall. There were excellent views of the town, of the sweeping countryside beyond unfolding in all directions as far as the eye could see and the Storks sitting on their untidy piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings.
We thought that Ávila seemed nicer than Toledo (our previous stop) and friendlier too because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English. There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.
The walk continued around the towering walls but it became a bit repetitive and we tired of the reoccurring turrets and the seemingly endless walk so we abandoned the top of the wall and returned to street level and walked around the exterior instead. After about an hour we re-entered the city at the Puerta de Santa Teresa on the west side and walked through the twisted narrow streets through the commercial centre and the market place and then deftly bypassed the shops back to the Cathedral and casually strolled through the narrow cobbled streets and through the municipal fish and meat market back to where we had started and looked for somewhere suitable for a later than usual first drink of the day.
We came across a charming and traditional little bodega squeezed into the walls of the city in between two high towers and once inside found a table and ordered some drinks and were delighted to find that when they arrived they were accompanied by an inevitable complimentary plates of tapas, but we weren’t going to complain about that!
The Plaza Mayor is arguably 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. This is the beating heart of a Spanish community and 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 town and its people.
On this occasion we were in the provincial town of Almagro and staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a street leading to the main square. It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the 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. At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide and flanked on both sides by arcades of Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of bottle green and fully glazed in a central European style this place is truly unique in 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 and families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers. Walking around the square was a proud grandmother pushing a young baby in an immaculate pram which matched her pristine outfit and she completed at least a dozen circuits, stopping frequently to chat and to show off the small child to anyone who showed the slightest interest.
In the search for real Spain (not the coasts and the Costas), in the past three years 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 Ávila, Mérida and Valladolid, Cáceres 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 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.
P is for Plaza Major but it could well have been:
Each new trip to Spain includes visits to World Heritage Sites so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that out of the forty-three sites on the UNESCO list (second only to Italy with forty-seven) I have now been to twenty and that is nearly half of them.
In 2005 I went to Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi, Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Cordoba, the Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella and the Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville. In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities it was the Old Town of Segovia and its Roman Aqueduct, the Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila. This trip in 2011 added Cáceres, Mérida and Aranjuez and also Trujillo which for the time being is only on the tentative list.
Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays. Although, to be absolutely fair, when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list. In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture and the following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007.
Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final two might be a bit dubious – but anyway here goes. In 1984 while driving back through Spain from Portugal I drove with friends through the city of Burgos which was accepted in that year because of its Cathedral and in Galicia in 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostella I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.
World Heritage Sites (posted June 2009)
We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a street leading to the main square and we found it easily and left the car in the underground car park. 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.
One of the hotel staff was very friendly and spoke good English and was interested in our travels around Spain and intrigued that we picked out of the way places like Pedro Bernardo instead of the well known tourist towns and we assured him that we liked it this way.
We told him that we were driving to Cáceres and he became quite insistent that we should take a short detour from our route and visit the Cuevas El Aguila, the Eagle Caves, in the foothills of the Gredos mountains but we had a long way to go and were not sure if we liked caves enough to go to the trouble. When we checked out a few minutes later he reminded us again to make the visit and assured us that we would not be disappointed so it seemed rude not to go so we set off in the direction that he carefully marked on our map.
It was an eleven o’clock flight from Madrid back to London Luton and Ávila is about one hundred kilometres from the city so I calculated that it would take at most two hours and that we should begin our journey at seven o’clock which would give us plenty of time to make the drive, return the car, check in and do a bit of duty free shopping.