Tag Archives: Castilla y Leon

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

Road Trip – Madrid and Castilla y Leon

” Castile has no coast, so tourists in search of a beach leave it alone…. Castile is almost overlooked.  If Spain is hard, extreme, hot, cold, empty, then Castile is more so.” –  Christopher House – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

It was still hot and the long straight road just kept going and going with nothing to break the monotony of the empty plains and the expanse of dusty red soil and the occasional vineyard.  As we drove I started to get a sense of just how big Spain is; four times larger than England and not as many people living in it either.

At some point in the afternoon we crossed the Guadiana River for a second time today and then drove through the towns of Valdepeñas, Manzanares  and Tembleque and then the sun started to go down and it began to get dark.

Catalonia Spain The Pyrenees

We were very hungry now and we needed fuel so we stopped at a truck stop and filling station and went inside.  The truckers, who were watching the ‘Muppet Show’ on TV, in Spanish, seemed surprised to see us and when there was a power cut and everything went pitch black we feared the worst might happen especially as Tembleque has one of the largest civil prisons in Spain.

When the power was restored a few minutes later and Kermit reappeared we nodded our appreciation to them for not murdering and robbing us and we set off again in the direction of Madrid.

Finally we reached the capital where once again there was no ring road and we were sucked into the city centre at the peak of Friday rush hour.  This was a terrible experience, driving down a main city street with no road markings, no logic to the traffic light sequencing and pedestrians fearlessly crossing the road and dodging the cars.

We stopped to ask directions but that wasn’t very helpful and at one point with Richard driving and on the wrong road we told him to reverse and correct his position.  We calculated that this was a safe thing to do because the traffic behind was held back by a red light but in the middle of the manoeuvre the lights changed and we didn’t want to be there because it was a bit like being caught in the middle of the road at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix!

Richard fearlessly completed the direction correction and slowly we began to crawl north out of the city.  It was about seven o’clock and we were six hours behind schedule, we should have been at the French border but we had only completed about five hundred miles.

As we finally left Madrid behind us we started to climb into the mountains and the temperature started to fall.  It started to fall a lot!  We had forgotten about the bodged repair to the heater because up until now we hadn’t needed it but now it was getting cold and it would have been rather nice.  And it got darker and darker and the missing headlight was becoming a problem and other irritated motorists were constantly flashing us.

While I took my turn at the wheel the other three put on extra clothing and went to sleep and I continued in silence and then it started to snow.  I didn’t know that it snowed in Spain!  Driving was becoming ever more difficult now and it wasn’t made easier when at one point Richard woke with a start and began to grab the wheel because in his disorientation he thought that I had strayed onto the wrong carriageway and I had to fight him off and settle him down before carrying on.

By ten o’clock we had been on road for seventeen hours and I was tired, hungry and had just plain had enough!  We had passed into Castilla y León and were high in the mountains approaching the town of Aranda del Duoro when suddenly some welcoming lights appeared and I decided that if this was somewhere to stop and sleep I was stopping and sleeping.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

It was a classy looking hotel called the Tudanca-Aranda II that from the temporary warmth of the back seat Anthony and Tony declared too expensive but I didn’t care and went to enquire about availability.  It turned out that this was a Spanish state hotel, which were luxury hotels in old castles, palaces, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings and are now part of the exclusive Parador group.

The hotels were set up by the state to promote quality tourism to act as guardian of the national and artistic heritage of Spain and to assist poorer regions to attract more visitors.

This one was an old hacienda and I don’t think they were expecting too many visitors on this particular night.  As it was a state hotel it was also ridiculously cheap so I booked a room for Richard and I and went back to the car where the others were getting ready for an uncomfortable night in the vehicle but were delighted when I broke the price news and they quickly joined us at check in.

Our final problem for this day was that we didn’t have many pesetas so we had to make a decision; food or beer?  While we had a first San Miguel the barman provided us with plates of little tapas snacks and as they just seemed to keep coming we kept eating them and this seemed to be the perfect solution.  Free food meant all of our money was available for wasting on beer! On reflection I am certain that we were just the sort of clientele that they did not want!

We didn’t stop up long though because we were exhausted and I can still remember, without exaggeration, the pleasure of getting undressed and climbing into the most comfortable bed that I have ever slept in, in my life.

Have you ever been really happy to find somewhere to stop and sleep?

Travels in Spain – The City of Zamora and the Hotel Conventa Spa

Zamora Spain

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s Zamora!                    When the World seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine that’s Zamora!”  Warren &  Brooks (with a revisionist contribution from the author)

The journey from León to Zamora was a hundred and twenty kilometres and took just about an hour and to be honest that was long enough because it seemed to me to be just miles and miles of endless bugger all.

We drove through several towns and villages that all seemed to be abandoned and we began to worry about the lack of supplies.  It was so boring in fact that Kim fell asleep and didn’t wake until I poked her to wake her up because I was in need of navigation assistance as we approached our destination.

We weren’t staying in Zamora but a few kilometres outside in the town of Coreses at the Hotel Conventa Spa I.  The most urgent task now was to find a shop for some beer and wine but the town was completely closed.  Eventually we came across a little shop but the assistants were busy locking the doors and closing the shutters and when we asked about the possibility of reopening later they looked at us as though we were completely mad and said (I think they said) that they were going to a village fiesta and each of them raised a couple of sticks, that they all seemed to be carrying and then clicked them together as if to confirm this.

Conventa Spa Hotel Zamora Spain

And so we carried on to the Hotel Conventa Spa which seemed absurdly huge for such a tiny town and as we drove into the car park I began to question my hotel booking judgement. It was like a giant motel and in the gardens was a replica Greek temple, Doric columns and huge statues which we assumed were used for wedding parties.  There were no more than ten cars in the car park and I was minded to abandon it and move on but Kim was a lot calmer than me and persuaded me to go inside.

Well, what a shock!  Once inside the hotel reception we were transported into a fantasy world of a Royal Palace and I might have been temporarily convinced that I was at San Ildifonsa o la Granja and that King Juan Carlos might come striding through the opulent furnishings of the drawing-room to greet me.  The place was a real surprise – someone had gone to a lot of trouble to create a Royal Palace in the middle of the dusty high plain of Castille and I was almost in a state of shock.  What a wonderful place, a Disney World like experience where everything was of the highest quality and I felt like an honoured guest of the Spanish nobility.

Hotel Conventa Spa Zamora

There was however still the problem of no wine so once we had familiarised ourselves with the place and rejected the mini bar selection on the basis of price we decided to go straight away into the city of Zamora.

Zamora is only a small city for a provincial capital, close to the border with Portugal and situated on the river Duero (Duoro in Portugal) and most famous for having the greatest number of Romanesque churches of any city in Europe.

We parked the car in an underground car park (Spain seems to really like underground car parks) and then we walked along a main shopping street where every shop was closed (phew!) until we reached the Plaza Mayor where all of Zamora seemed to be out tonight enjoying the early evening sunshine. We selected a pavement table at a busy bar and watched as the single waitress on duty struggled to cope with the sheer number of customers until we were finally able to attract her attention and order some drinks.

“By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls                                                            There’s a hidden door she leads you to                                                                           These days, she says,                                                                                                                         I feel my life just like a river running through”                                                                    Al Stewart – ‘The Year of the Cat’

Zamora Street Scene

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls pat–a-cake and skipping.  In the centre was a church with a statue dedicated to‘Holy Week’  and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into the intriguing shadows of the alleys and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.

What was noticeable was how well-behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing-room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together.

Zamorra and the River Duero

As the sun began to dip and the shadows lengthened and our table fell into shade we settled our bill and walked to the Castle and the house where El Cid  is said to have lived after his marriage to Ximena  and then to the Cathedral but we were reluctant to go inside  because there was a service taking place so we peeked through the door and having satisfied ourselves that it wasn’t particularly exceptional (much to Kim’s obvious relief) we walked back the way we had come to the car and returned to the car via the bank of the River Duero  and then to the hotel Conventa Spa – where there was some excitement!

Zamora Cathedral

In the car park was a swanky coach which displayed livery that said that this was the team bus of Spanish La Liga football team Deportivo de La Coruña who were probably enjoying the spa facilities ahead of a team briefing.  I couldn’t help imagining that this might be like the film ‘Mike Bassett, England Manager’ and that the coach was inside somewhere explaining that tomorrow they would be playing “Quatro, Quarto, Jodienda Dos!”

We liked the Conventa Spa and were pleased that we would be staying there for two nights as we made our journey of discovery  through Castilla y León and we were even more pleased after we had an unexpectedly excellent meal (a chuleton of beef) in the restaurant for evening meal and then a wonderful breakfast in the morning before setting off for the city of Salamanca.

Zamora Spain

Travels in Spain – The City of Burgos

Burgos Cathedral

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Burgos and we located the hotel without too much difficulty and checked in.  I had chosen the Meson Del Cid because of its location and because the hotel web site boasted about the panoramic views of the Cathedral.

Unfortunately our room didn’t have a panoramic view of the Cathedral or its celebrated ornate front door as we were allocated a room at the rear with a view of a tiny courtyard and the back door of an adjacent church and I immediately decided (perhaps unfairly) that this was most likely going to adversely affect my customer review scoring.

I was especially keen to visit Burgos because the first time I was there in 1985 I dashed through with indecent haste on a road trip from the Algarve to the English Channel and at that point we were seriously behind our schedule and didn’t have time to stop but mostly because this is the spiritual home of my Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar, better known as El Cid.

There was time for a brief excursion into the city but with a full day ahead in Burgos we ignored the sights right now and looked instead for a likely restaurant for later.  The one that we selected served a nice evening meal, but not the best that we had had this week and our mistake was not to have the menu del dia which was being served up by the plateful to the pilgrims who made their way inside.

El Cid Alvar Fanez Burgos

My way of getting our own back on the hotel for the disappointing room was to boycott their expensive breakfast at €11 each and instead found a good alternative at only €4 each just around the corner in a place with the tempting aromas of the first meal of the day, pungent coffee, sizzling eggs, newly fried churros and the faint hint of charred toast.

It was a miserable cold morning and immovable grey clouds filled the sky, the walkers were all wearing their warmest clothes and most people on the street were taking the sensible precaution of carrying an umbrella.  We walked first to the Plaza Mayor which isn’t going to get into my favourites list because although it was large and colourful the place was spoilt by the inappropriate placement of recycling containers where, in my opinion, there should have been pavement tables.

From the Plaza we walked to the river through one of the original city gates, the Arco de Santa Maria, and then along a boulevard, Paseo del Espolón, lined with trees like lines of Greek dancers each with their hands on their partners shoulders and then towards the Plaza del Cid.

Greek Dancer Trees Burgos

Once over the river we crossed a bridge lined with statues depicting the heroes of the Reconquesta and then, there he was – El Cid, looking fearsome with his grizzled beard, wild cloak flowing madly, his sword La Tizona, too big for an ordinary mortal, extended ahead of him, his eyes fixed ferociously on an enemy army as he led a charge against the Moors sat on his magnificent famous white horse Babieca.

Only one other statue is the equal of this one in all of Spain – that of Francisco Pizarro more than five hundred kilometres away in the Plaza Mayor in the city of Trujillo  in Extremadura.

El Cid and Babieca

The weather stubbornly refused to improve so we decided that it was time to visit the Cathedral, the third largest in Spain after Seville and Toledo and we walked to the great Gothic construction with its balustraded turrets, needle-pointed pinnacles, statues of the Saints and steel grey filigree lace towers soaring above us, went inside and grudgingly paid the €7 entrance fee.

Actually this turned out to be very good value for money because I would agree with the travel writer Jan Morris that this is perhaps the finest Cathedral that I have visited in Spain, better than both Seville and Toledo and with an audio guide thrown in.

It took some time to visit all of the chapels on both sides and eventually reach the centre of the building with its huge grey columns reaching up above us supporting a magnificent ribbed central dome where underneath in pride of place was the resting place and tomb of El Cid and his equally famous wife Doña Ximena Díaz  Actually I was expecting something a bit grander but the great National hero of Spain is buried under a rather simple marble gravestone.

Burgos Cathedral, Spain

Through the magnificent stained glass windows we could see that there were occasional shafts of sunlight so with the weather improving Kim began to get restless so we hurried our pace for the remainder of the visit but I did manage to slow her down long enough to visit the Cathedral museum where amongst the exhibits were the travel chest of El Cid, which I am fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to use as Ryanair cabin baggage and a blood thirsty statue of Saint James the Moor slayer.

These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a similar statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.

A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement explained that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ.  It might also be a case of political correctness.  In 1990 there were one hundred thousand Muslims living in Spain but by 2010 this had risen to over one million.

Saint James is in danger of becoming a bit of a Nigel Farage!  Burgos Cathedral on the other hand, for the time being anyway, appears not to be so sensitive.

Saint James at Santiago de Compostella

With the sun now shining we returned to the streets and walked along a steep path through pleasant woodland towards the castle of Burgos.  There was once a medieval castle on the site but the current fort was built by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, was the only castle that the Duke of Wellington failed to capture and which was destroyed again by the French when they retreated and left in 1813.

It has been restored again now but opening hours seem to be very limited and today the iron gates were firmly closed and locked so we walked back to the city and returned to the river and walked in both directions before selecting a pavement bar on the Paseo del Espolón  and sat in the hot sunshine with a San Miguel.

I liked Burgos, probably most out of all the cities that we had visited this week and I was glad that we had chosen to spend a couple of nights here.  Later we found an alternative restaurant for evening meal where the food was excellent and we were in the good company of some Camino walkers and at the end of the day there was a walk back to the hotel through the quiet streets under the waxy glow of the iron street lamps casting their curious shadows into the corners of the Plazas and streets and overhead there was a clear sky which made us optimistic about the next day.

Plaza Major Burgos Spain

Travels in Spain – Talavera de La Reina, City of Pots!

Talavera de la Reina Spain

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.

Talavera Conquistador Tiles

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 Fountain

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.

Talavera de La Reina Fountain

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!

Talavera de la Reina Ceramic Art Spain

Travels in Spain – Ciudad Rodrigo, Next Stop Portugal

Valladolid airport is only small with limited facilities but there was a sign apologising for this and promising imminent improvements.  We collected a steel grey Seat Ibiza from the Avis rental car office and set off immediately on the one hundred and forty mile drive to Ciudad Rodrigo.

As it was Sunday and we worried about shops being open we stopped as soon as we could at a motorway service station and bought beer, wine and snacks and then carried on.

We were crossing the Meseta, the great central plain of interior Spain, which at two hundred and ten thousand square kilometres makes up forty percent of the country and has an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres. It is split in two by the Sistema Central, the Guadarrama and Gredos mountain ranges, creating Old Castile to the north (Castilla y Leon) and New Castile to the south (Castilla La Mancha). The northern ‘submeseta’ is the higher of the two at over eight hundred metres and coming from below sea level in Lincolnshire I worried that we might require oxygen cylinders.

After a couple of hours of really enjoyable motoring we came to Ciudad Rodrigo, which is the last city in Spain before reaching Portugal, a fortress city built to protect the western border of the country and as we approached we could see the walled city and its fortifications standing proud on a rocky outcrop in a commanding defensive position.

I knew roughly where the hotel Molina de Águeda was and as we kept an eye open for directions Kim had a navigational fluke and spotted a half hidden sign that signposted our destination.  As we pulled into the car park there were a few spots of rain but it came to nothing and there were blue skies above us as we unloaded the car and went inside to reception.  It was a very nice hotel indeed located in an old water mill on the river Agueda, elegantly refurbished and surrounded by woods and we had a good room on the front with a nice view of the river and the old city about a half a mile away.

Ciudad Rodrigo river and bridge

It was a pleasant evening, not cold, but the sort of temperature when local people feel it appropriate to put on a coat, hat and scarf but is still shirt sleeve weather for those of us from northern Europe with thicker blood.  We needn’t have worried about finding somewhere to eat because there was plenty of choice and the place was really busy with families out for a Sunday night on the town.

As a consequence of a severe Atlantic storm in the west we woke to a hissing wind and dark scowling clouds that the mountains of Portugal had failed to detain racing in from the west like battleships.  It was mean and moody but there was no rain so that was a bonus.

Ciudad Rodrigo Castle

From the hotel balcony it was possible to appreciate just what a land of contrasts Spain really is.  This was about as far away from the traditional view of Spain of the holiday brochures as it is possible to get and it was different too from our visit the previous month to Castilla-la Mancha.  Here we were getting close towards green Spain in the north with more small farms, livestock, deciduous woods, fast flowing rivers and Portugal just twenty-five kilometres away – which was where we planned to visit later.

After breakfastwe dressed appropriately and took the walk alongside the river and into Ciudad Rodrigo.  The sky was blue but filling all the time with dark purple clouds with only occasional shafts of sunlight darting through.  There was a spiteful wind that stung our ears and although it was a nice walk it was along a very muddy path that took us along the Rio Águeda.

As we climbed the outside of the city walls the wind strengthened and thankfully scattered the black clouds somewhere to the east towards Salamanca and they were replaced with friendlier white cotton wool ball clouds that raced in to take their place.  We entered the city through the western gate cut into the fortifications, still bearing the pock-marked scars of musket balls and found ourselves in a charming place overflowing with history and character.

Laredo Cantabria Spain

It was quiet enough today however and once inside the walls we walked to the castle, which predictably is now a Parador hotel, had a look inside and then walked around a part of the walls.  A few spots of rain forced us down into the city, past the curiously misshapen cathedral, the result of an earthquake which literally knocked it sideways, and into a tourist information office with the heating set to an unnecessary maximum and then on to the Plaza Mayor in the centre with its warm sandstone coloured buildings, ornate metal balconies and traditional Spanish shops and bars around all four sides.

Ciudad Rodrigo Street

The weather was changing by the minute and after the little shower the sky was blue with clouds that had no time to stop and spoil it because they were driven away swiftly by the wind.  It was nice enough to sit outside at a pavement café and have a drink while we planned what to do with the rest of the day.

We hadn’t seen all of Ciudad Rodrigo but we decided to leave some for tomorrow and feeling optimistic about the weather prospects decided to go to Portugal for lunch so we returned to the hotel to pick up the car.

Plaza Ciudad Rodrigo

 

Travels in Spain – Pedro Bernardo in the Gredos Mountains

Pedro Bernardo Spain

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.

Poppies Castilla La Mancha Spain

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.

Pedro Bernardo Spain

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.

Friendship

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.

Pedro Bernardo Spain