Tag Archives: Castilla-La Mancha

Favourite Places in Spain, Almagro in Castilla-La Mancha

Almagro Watercolours

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 neighbour Ciudad Real and it settled down to become  the quiet provincial town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.  We came upon Almagro quite by chance and chose it for a one night stop-over.  We stayed for three!

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Favourite Places in Spain, Chinchon in Comunidad de Madrid

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From Besalu in Catalonia to Chinchon in Castilla-La Mancha about four hundred and fifty miles to the south.

The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies all painted a uniform shade of green called ‘claros’ and below these shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.

It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight as it happens, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

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Favourite Places in Spain, Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha

“…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’

I am sharing with you my favourite places in Spain; last time I was in the north in Cantabria and today I am two hundred and fifty miles south in the town of Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha…

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Travels in Spain, Cervantes and Alcalá de Henares

Cervantes Alcala de Henares

Modern day Alcalá de Henares is a busy sprawling industrial suburb of Madrid but at its heart is the world’s first planned University City founded in 1293 by King Sancho IV of Castile.  It was the original model for the Civitas Dei (City of God), the ideal Christian community that Spanish missionaries exported to the New World and it also served as a model for universities in all of Europe and elsewhere.

Alcalá de Henares is Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale but I wouldn’t have guessed this as we drove towards the city centre through grimy streets, clogged with growling traffic and unattractive high rise apartment blocks and small industrial units lining the road.

The City is however packed to overflowing with two thousand years of history.  It was settled by Romans, Moors and the reconquering Christians.  As a former royal residence it is where Columbus met Queen Isabella for the first time.   In 1547, it was the birthplace of Spain’s greatest literary genius, Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.  It achieved UNESCO world heritage status in 1998 thanks to this venerated university which has produced a steady supply of saints and generations of powerful Spanish Catholic bishops.

Don Quixote Alcala de Henares

It was almost lunch time now and having missed breakfast judged it about time to eat so we found a place in the sun and asked for a menu.  When I said it was almost lunch time I meant that it was about eleven-thirty and this proved to be a bit of a problem because most of the things we selected weren’t quite ready so we tried again and most of the things on our second selection attempt weren’t ready either so we settled for a bocadillo and a glass of beer before setting off into the centre of the city for sightseeing.

The pavement bar with the seriously restricted menu options was close to the centre of Alcalá de Henares so after our short stop we walked through the red brick city to the expansive tree lined Plaza Mayor, here called the Plaza de Cervantes.

Cervantes wrote a dozen or so major works and his most famous is Don Quixote, a sprawling epic novel regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age.  It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses, and  “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants.

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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, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and Bryson.  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 but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we walked around I resolved to have another attempt upon returning home.

So that is the two most translated books in the history of the World that I haven’t read! The third is ‘Listen to God and Live Forever’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and not surprisingly I haven’t read that either.

The Plaza is a supremely handsome square surrounded by tall University buildings decorated with untidy Stork nests. There was a lot of activity in the nests today because the population of these birds in Spain is rising, from six thousand seven hundred pairs thirty years ago to an estimated thirty-five thousand pairs today.  In fact there are so many White Storks in Spain that it is now second only to Poland who with fifty thousand birds has always traditionally been the country with the most pairs of the birds in Europe.

Cervantes

On three sides there are medieval colonnaded arcades and in the centre on a tall column stands a statue of Cervantes with quill held delicately in his right hand as a Conquistador might hold a sword, as though poised to begin writing a masterpiece.  We walked through and around it and then explored the University district before returning to the main shopping street the Calle Mayo

All along the Calle Mayor there were shopping distractions for Kim to investigate so while she looked at shoes and cakes and sparkly things I made my way to the end of the street to the birthplace museum of Cervantes and waited in the company of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for her to catch me up.

I had a mind to visit the museum especially as the web site said that admission was free but at the entrance I was greeted by an attendant who explained that there was a charge of €10 which I judged to be rather expensive for just a handful of rooms so I purchased a couple of postcards and left.  Maybe I made the right decision because I read subsequently that there is some suggestion that this is not his birthplace at all and the house was built some time after Cervantes birth, an accusation that is strenuously denied by the museum of course.

Cervantes House Alcala de Henares

Travels in Spain, The Origin of Tapas

According to one legend, the tapas tradition in Spain began when the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.  On this particular day there was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham supposedly to prevent the sherry from getting dirty but more likely because he didn’t want to have his head cut off!

The King finished the sherry and ate the ham, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.  This evolved into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and bodega owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry but, more importantly, increasing their alcohol sales as a consequence.

There are alternative stories about the origin of tapas but so far this is my favourite.

 

Travels in Spain, Balcony Flowers

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In Spain some people go to a lot of trouble to decorate their balconies with blooms.

This on the other hand is the minimalist approach to window gardening.

Travels in Spain, A Detour to Talavera de la Reina

Talavera de la Reina Faces

Talavera de la Reina is a city in the western part of the province of Toledo, the second-largest centre of population in Castile-La Mancha after Albacete; it is the largest in the province, larger even than the city of Toledo itself, although the more famous city naturally remains the capital.

This means that to a certain extent Talavera is a city with an inferiority complex and this isn’t helped by the fact that it isn’t really a primary tourist destination but we are keen to visit as many Spanish cities as possible and even if it was not on our most direct route between Toledo and Ávila we were not going to exclude it from our itinerary.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition in Spain and beyond, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums of the world and in the most luxurious palaces all over Europe.  The city is internationally known for its products, which King Philip II used as tiled revetments in many of his works, such as the monastery of El Escorial.

The nickname of Talavera de la Reina is ‘The City of Pottery’ and Mexico’s famous Talavera pottery was named after the place.  We could have guessed this because after lunch we walked through the old city towards the River Tagus and our route took us past a succession of similar ceramics workshops and shops.

Talavera de la Reina Soldiers

Eventually we reached the river which is the longest in the Iberian Peninsula and the twelfth longest in Europe. It is just over six hundred miles long long and flows all the way to Lisbon in Portugal where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along its course there are several dams and diversions supply drinking water to most of central Spain and Portugal, while dozens of hydroelectric stations create power.

The source of the Tagus is the Fuente de García, in the Montes Universales, Sierra de Albarracín Comarca. The main cities it passes through are Aranjuez, Toledo, Talavera de la Reina and Alcántara in Spain, then Abrantes, Santarém, Almada and Lisbon in Portugal.

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To be honest there wasn’t a lot to detain us for more than an afternoon so after a short while we left.  Driving out of Talavera de la Reina was not too difficult except that we emerged from the underground car park onto a one way street and managed to cross the River Tagus twice until we found the road that headed north towards the Gredos Mountains, but once out of the city motoring was straight-forward and the satellite navigation lady seemed to pull her self together so we didn’t have any fall-outs!

As we headed north we began to slowly climb as we entered an area of green scrubland littered with huge granite boulders where the verges of the road were a riot of red poppies and contrasting yellow daisies.  Ahead of us we could see the mountains with peaks covered in a few stubborn streaks of snow in the protection of the shadows where the March sun couldn’t quite reach.  We were still in bright sunshine but ahead of us the sky was a dramatic dark grey, brooding, threatening and angry and we worried that crossing the north south dividing line of Spain parallel with Madrid (40° 25′ 0.3900” N) that we were leaving all of the good weather behind.

A short way out of Talavera we crossed the site of a famous battle of the Peninsula War where Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) won one of his most successful and famous battles.  On 27th and 28th July 1809 the Battle of Talavera took place between the Anglo-Spanish army and the French.  It was a total allied victory and during the fight Talavera was hardly damaged and Wellesley’s army expelled the French from the city and the surrounding area.

The battle is also the setting for the fictional event of ‘Sharpe’s Eagle’ the first book written in Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ series.

Next time I will finally get back to Ávila…

Regions of Spain