Have Bag, Will Travel
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If I was recommending a city in Spain for tile and ceramics I would suggest Talavera de la Reina.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums all over 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.
But, having said that Valencia has some interesting wall tiles of its own…
If you are travelling to Spain and want to avoid the coast and the obvious tourist traps then let me make some suggestions…
“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.
“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.
“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
“…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.
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.
Because there was quite a long way to go we planned for a very early start and it was still dark when we left just after five o’clock we surprised the car by piling in and starting it up at an obscenely early hour in the morning.
Tony had the rough guide to Europe map and had sorted the route and there was a very simple plan, we would take it in turns and drive non stop all the way only stopping when the car could take no more, it would be tapas in Madrid at lunchtime, Bordeaux in France for evening meal, and a bottle or two of nice red wine, a night in Evreux in Normandy, and a visit to some friends who lived there, and then on to Dieppe in plenty of time for the ferry in just over forty-eight hours time.
So simple it hardly needed a plan at all!
Even though there was no motorway in 1986 the one hundred kilometre drive to the border was quite straight forward at this time in the morning but the lack of an offsite headlight did make things a little bit precarious at times. We drove inland for about half the way and then joined the coast road for the final section of the drive towards the border with Spain, which we reached more or less on schedule.
That was the last time!
The border with Spain is the Guadiana River and these days a bridge takes the motorway straight across but for centuries before that the ferry link between Vila Real de Santo António in Portugal and Ayamonte in Spain was the only way to get across. There was a slight delay waiting for the next available ferry but nothing too serious and as we took the twenty minute, two kilometre journey the sun started to come up ahead of us and we arrived in Spain just in time for breakfast.
This is when we came across our first problem. We needed some fuel but none of the petrol stations that we passed accepted credit cards and it soon became obvious that this was quite normal in Spain. It was a problem because as we only planned to be in the country for a short time we didn’t have many Pesetas between us. Eventually we had to resort to plan B (to be honest we didn’t really have a plan B, or even a sensible plan A) and we pooled all of our Spanish currency for fuel purchases and that meant there was nothing left for food and reluctantly we had to skip breakfast.
And then there was the second problem because although the map indicated that we were driving on a motorway it wasn’t a motorway in the UK M1 sense of the term and this single carriage road went straight through the middle of every busy little town and village on the way and with every mile that we travelled we fell slowly further behind schedule.
Still, at least the weather was nice and we were in Andalucía, which is possibly the most typically Spanish of all of the regions of Spain, the land of Carmen, Don Juan, bull fighting and flamenco and we drove on relentlessly towards Seville a hundred miles or so from the border.
By the time we arrived it was getting hot and we were quite surprised to find that the fourth largest city in Spain didn’t have a bypass and the road took us directly into the centre past the bull ring at the Plaza de Torres along some busy roads, past the railway station and on the road out the other side.
Seville did look absolutely splendid and everything that I imagined about Spain; bulls, flamenco, guitars, palm trees and beggars but being hopelessly behind schedule we had to abandon the plan for hot chocolate and churritos.
At some traffic lights two scruffy boys without shirts, blue-black hair, burning eyes and ribs like radiators started to wash the windscreen with a dirty rag and completely ignored our instruction to stop. Having completed the unnecessary task one of them put his hand through the window and demanded payment, ‘Cien’ he shouted and then just in case we misunderstood ‘Cien’ again.
I was nervous because we had all sorts of things lying about on the dashboard within reach of thieving fingers and I quickly calculated that a hundred pesetas was actually quite reasonable so I gave him a coin. This didn’t satisfy the ungrateful little urchin however and he demanded more from the others in the passenger seats while his pal stood in front of the car with arms outstretched on the bonnet in a sort of roadblock sort of way.
‘Cien, Cien’ he kept shouting and this I thought was unreasonable and as there was practically no chance whatsoever of Tony parting with a hundred pesetas (he would rather swim with sharks or wrestle alligators) I decided to make a getaway from the hold-up, hit the accelerator pedal and drove on. The boy on the bonnet rolled theatrically to the side to feign injury and his pal chased us as far as he could until we were out of sight.
We were pleased to be out of Seville and on our way to Córdoba another hundred miles away and on a road that followed the course of the Guadalquivir River and we passed through the city at about one o’clock and it was then that I had to concede that we would probably not make Madrid for lunch time tapas.
Since leaving Alcantarilha we had been travelling relentlessly east and after Córdoba we had to continue for another hundred kilometres or so before the road finally started to turn north through the Desfiladero de Despeñaperros, which is the only mountain pass that leads out of Andalucía and onto the endless plains of Castilla-La-Mancha, the Don Quixote country of windmills and castles and miles and miles of absolutely bugger all!
Have you ever been over optimistic about travel times?
With an ambitious objective to visit all of the regions of Spain and already travelled to the more obvious places such as Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y Leon it was time this visit to be more adventurous.
I have excluded from that short list places such as Galicia, Cantabria, The Basque Country and Catalonia because although we have been there I have become aware that these, although part of the state of Spain, are not really Spain at all and something quite separate and different.
On this occasion we choose Extremadura to the south-west of Madrid, which the guide books claimed to be the least visited part of the country. With no convenient international airport in the Province it was a choice between Seville or Madrid and the best available flights were to the capital about three hundred kilometres away and a long drive from the cities of Cáceres, Trujillo and Mérida.
In the week before the journey the BBC had been promising rain and cloud which was disappointing so we packed appropriately with rain coats and umbrellas and when we took off from Luton Airport on an early morning flight the sun was beginning to rise in a blue sky and we became resigned to leaving good conditions at home and flying into colder, wetter weather.
Across the United Kingdom and the Bay of Biscay the weather remained clear and then we crossed the coast of Spain somewhere near Santander and we could see the snowy peaks of the Picos de Europa mountains and the plains of Castilla y Leon and it appeared that we may have been unnecessarily pessimistic but then as we approached central Spain and Madrid the clouds began to build over the mountains and it looked as though for once the weather forecasters were correct.
By the time we reached Madrid however there was improvement and after we had landed and made our way through arrivals and completed the car hire formalities the sun was winning the competition with the clouds for control of the sky and encouraged by this we left the airport and began our journey west.
In anticipation of rain we had an alternative plan to drive via El Escorial and visit the Royal Palace but we had been there before and with the sun shining we stuck to our original plan to drive to the city of Talavera de la Reina in the north of the Province of Castilla-La Mancha.
It was about one hundred kilometres for this first leg of the journey and the Autovia was practically empty so we enjoyed a trouble-free, toll-free ride all the way to the city, which, with the help of the satnav lady navigator we found easily and parked the Volkswagen Polo in a convenient underground car park close to the centre.
Talavera de la Reina is a city in the western part of the province of Toledo and is the second-largest centre of population in Castile-La Mancha (after Albacete) and the largest in the province, larger even than the city of Toledo itself, although the more famous city naturally remains the provincial 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 we were not going to exclude it from our itinerary.
We emerged from the underground car park into the heart of the city park where there were fountains and statues and leafy walks leading to the Basilica del Prado where we walked and then became confused while looking for the city centre. It was lunchtime and we were hungry so we quickly reoriented ourselves and then confident about the direction of travel made our way to the city centre where in one of the busy satellite squares we found some tables in the sun and enjoyed a tapas lunch.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition, 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.
Eventually we reached the river which is the longest in the Iberian Peninsula and the twelfth longest in Europe. It is just over a thousand kilometres long and flows all the way to Lisbon in Portugal where it finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Along its course there are several dams and diversions supply drinking water to most of central Spain, including Madrid, and Portugal, while dozens of hydroelectric stations create abundant 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, and Abrantes, Santarém, Almada and Lisbon in Portugal.
The water was brown and dirty and flowing freely, swollen by all the recent rain that had fallen and the water gnawed at the banks and created muddy whirlpools in between the reeds and we walked alongside it for a while back in the general direction of the car.
The sun was hot now by mid-afternoon and the sky was cloudless so instead of leaving straight away we stopped for a drink in a little café in the park where we had a beer and thanked the BBC for getting the weather forecast wrong as usual!
Driving out of the Castilian city 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 when we didn’t even need to cross it at all until we found the road that headed north towards the Gredos Mountains.
As we made our way out of the city we began to slowly climb as we entered an area of green scrub land littered with huge granite boulders where the verges of the road were a riot of bragging scarlet poppies contrasting with demure damsel daisies. Ahead of us we could see the mountains and the tops were covered in a few stubborn streaks of snow like paint streaks down the side of a pot that were in the protection of the shadows where the April sun couldn’t quite reach.
We were still in bright sunshine but ahead of us the sky was a dramatic dark grey, brooding, threatening, angry.
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 as 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.
The drive north took us into the neighbouring Province of Castilla y Leon and through the little town of Buenaventura, which was closed, and then the climb became more dramatic as we reached almost one thousand metres when we made the approach to the mountain village of Pedro Bernardo.
We managed to stay just short of the cloud and the sun was still shining as we drove through several tricky hair-pin bends and into the village and easily found the Hostal El Cerro in the middle of the village on a dramatic bend in the road overlooking the valley below.
Although only two star it was an excellent hotel with an exceptional room, a wonderful view and with excellent weather the ideal place for an hour or so of relaxing on the very private terrace. After a while the grey sky started to muscle in however and there was a drop or two of rain but it was sheltered and there were expansive views over the rural hinterland with forests of elms, pines, chestnut and hazelnut trees and tumbling waterfalls and racing rivers making the town a scenic paradise.
The origins of Pedro Bernardo are not clear; the original name of the village was Navalasolana, and there is a popular local legend that talks about the leaders of two groups of shepherds, Pedro Fernández and Bernardo Manso. They started to fight and struggled to get the control of the village and finally, the feudal lord of the council came up with a solution and decided to change the name of Navalasolana to Pedro and Bernardo to achieve peace and stop the struggles between the two competing bands.
This sounds very much to me like the squabble between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman over who should get top billing in the film ‘Towering Inferno‘ and where there was an equally sensible solution – to provide dual top billing, the credits were arranged diagonally, with McQueen lower left and Newman upper right. Thus, each appeared to have “first” billing depending on whether the credit was read left-to-right or top-to-bottom.
In the early evening we walked into Pedro Bernardo, passing first through the Plaza de Torres and then the Plaza Mayor where groups of mainly old men were sitting in groups and discussing the big important issues of the day – whether to have a wine or a beer, shall I change my underpants tomorrow and that sort of thing. We walked through the twisting narrow streets flanked by crumbling buildings with precarious wooden balconies and barely inhabitable houses and we wandered aimlessly through the streets until we arrived at the church somewhere near the top of the village.
It was nothing special and really hardly worth the walk so we made our way back down and stayed for a while in the main square and had a drink had a bar where there was reluctance to serve us on account of the fact that the owner and bar staff were preoccupied watching a bull fight from Seville on the television.
The Hostel El Cerro was a perfect place, a rare mix of rustic charm and modern sophistication and we had no hesitation in eating in the hotel dining room. It was only eight o’clock which seemed to surprise the staff but the chef was already there (in the bar) and we tucked in to an excellent Chuletón de Ávila.
Although it was still quite early, we had been a long day and had had an early start so after the evening meal we went back to the room and sat on the balcony with a final glass of red wine and from our elevated position watched the stars twinkling overhead in the velvet sky as though from the prow of a ship and stared into emptiness interrupted only by the lights of the distant villages, Lanzahita, La Higuera and Ramacastanas lying like distant constellations in the vague immensity and then relaxed and content emptied the bottle optimistic that tomorrow would be another fine day.