Tag Archives: Cervantes

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.

don-quixote-book-cover

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

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Travels in Spain, Don Quixote and The Windmills of Consuegra

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It was going to be a long day so we woke early ready for a quick start and as usual my first job was to check the weather.

The air felt fresher and from the hotel window I could see cloud to the east, which was a bit of a worry but the lady on Spanish breakfast television seemed confident that it was going to be fine and out to the west it was clear blue and that was the direction in which we were heading.

We drove first to the town of Alcázar de San Juan but this wasn’t because of any sort of thorough pre travel planning on my part just an instinct that it would be interesting based on what seemed to be a rather promising name.  I should have carried out some proper research because when we got there it didn’t seem very appealing at all, there wasn’t a castle to be seen and the clouds that were quicker than us had caught up and overtaken and there was a bleached out sort of chalky whiteness to the sky so we rather rudely carried on without stopping.

Back at the hotel there had been pictures of a castle and a row of windmills at the next town of Consuegra so as it came into view we left the main road and headed towards the top of the ridge where they stood like regimental sentinels overlooking the town.   Across the crest of the hill they marched like giants.  No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword and charged in combat to fight these creaking monsters.

Don Quixote and Windmills

The windmills stand in line and look down on the flat red dirt plains of La Mancha, their once free flowing sails now arthritically stiff, tied down tightly and no longer spinning in the wind. They are almost smug in what is now their supremely safe tourist protected environment, they no longer have to work you see.

Originally, there were thirteen whitewashed windmills lining this hilltop. Now only eleven remain of which four still retain their working mechanisms. Known as “molinos” in Spain, the windmills are each named — Sancho, Bolero, Espartero, Mambrino, Rucio, Cardeno, Alcancia, Chispas, Callabero del Verde Gaban, Clavileno and Vista Alegre.

Each imperious windmill is actually nothing more than a tall cylindrical tower capped with a dark cone and four big sails and until relatively recently local farmers would haul their grain to these rural factories for grinding into flour. I was surprised to learn that they remained in use until as recently as the beginning of the 1980s.  One is now an inevitable gift shop.

The windmills and the skills required to operate them were passed down through the generations of millers from fathers to sons.  Windows placed around the tower of the windmill provide wonderful views today but that was not their original use.  From these windows the miller could keep watch on the shifting winds and when the winds changed he would have to move the tiller beam to turn the mill.   If he didn’t a sudden strong wind could strip the sails, rip off the top and the whole building could be destroyed in a moment of carelessness..

Consuegra Windmill Sail

In fact the weather was rather wild this morning on this exposed ridge high above the low lying plains as the wind moaned through the singing sail wires and as we walked between the sunburned black timber frames and admired the bulk of the brooding castle nearby we drew strange glances from bus tourists who were wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves that were much more appropriate than our linens and short sleeves.

From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a bit of a sorry state of disrepair but from here there were terrific views over the great plain of Castile and it was easy to see why this was once a very important military place as it guarded the direct route from the south to Toledo and Madrid.  The castle was once a stronghold of the Knights of San Juan, the Spanish branch of the Knight’s Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

After escaping the wind and leaving the rather untidy town of Consuegra we rejoined the road and headed north to Toledo and on the way the clouds evaporated and the sun poured through and we passed more castles at Mora and at Almonacid but we didn’t stop again.  The scenery began to change too as it became more untidy and scrub like as we left the chequerboard fields and their delightful colours behind.

Just before midday we reached the outskirts of Toledo and at the top of the city we could see the Alcázar and the Cathedral and we followed the signs to the historical centre and found a very large and convenient car park right on the edge of the city and in my league table of Spanish city car parks Toledo went straight to the top.

At the bottom by the way remains Seville!

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Travels in Spain, Belmonte to Almagro

Almagro 1

“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’

More or less, still following the Ruta de Don Quixote we drove directly now from Belmonte to the town of Almagro, so far south in Castilla-La Mancha that it almost in Andalucía.  We arrived around about mid-morning, parked the car and made straight for the Centro Historico.

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.

The centre of Almagro is conveniently located inside a circle of modern roads so we circumnavigated it all as we walked through surprisingly wide and airy streets with the ubiquitous boxy white houses with little balconies and ornamental black iron grills over the windows where much of the town has been redeveloped to accommodate modern living demands.

Almagro x 5

Along the route there were churches, a wide open park and a convent, now converted to a Parador hotel.  We went inside as we usually do to take a look but Parador room and menu prices are not really for us so we weren’t tempted to stay and instead made our way back to the Plaza Mayor passing 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 it is flanked on both sides by a Praetorian Guard of weathered Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of 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.

Almagro Plaza Mayor

We were 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 pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden where we let the afternoon gently slip away with a bottle of local wine, a game or two of cards and a couple of chapters of our books before out thoughts turned to evening meal.

The next morning breakfast at the Retiro del Maestre was simply wonderful and easily the best so far, in fact, if we were compiling a list of the top five hotel breakfasts ever then this would certainly be in there.  It was the usual thing in terms of content but it had clearly been lovingly prepared by the ladies of the house and the cook fussed around the breakfast room, making recommendations, making sure everyone was happy and brazenly fishing for well deserved compliments.

Almagro x 3

We planned to spend another morning in Almagro and we started with a visit to the Corral de Comedias, a sixteenth century theatre, similar to those that Shakespeare would have been familiar with in Elizabethan England, built in what was the courtyard of an Inn and which today is the only fully preserved example of a theatre of this type in the World.  It is amazing what gems you come across when you stray off the well beaten tourist track.

It is a working theatre still today and inside it is an immaculate example of a theatre of the golden age, built on three levels with galleries and private boxes running around all three sides of the still open courtyard.  It was an unexpected bonus for us but it didn’t take long to walk around and listen to the audio commentary so after we had finished we stopped for a coffee and compiled a shopping list of souvenirs that we could confidently carry back in our hand luggage and agreed on some local pottery and some water-colour postcards of the main sights of the town.

Now it was time to leave and start the next stage of our journey towards the City of Toledo. We had enjoyed Almagro and glad that we had included it in the itinerary, a lovely town and with a Plaza Mayor that went straight into my personal Top Ten.

Plaza Mayor Almagro

Travels in Spain, To Belmonte via Mota del Cuervo

Castile La Mancha

After a couple of hours we reluctantly left the attractive little town of Chinchón with its beautiful square basking languidly in the afternoon sun and after threading our way through the narrow streets twice, by some miraculous stroke of good fortune, found ourselves on the right road and heading south to the town of Belmonte in the province of Cuenca where we were due to stay for the next three nights.

After just a short while the scenery began to change, flat now but still with black olive trees and  gnarled vines twisting away like Chubby Checker and endless fields of pretty pastel colours and at some point we passed out of the region of Madrid and into Castilla-La Mancha and we were in the land of  Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but the first windmills that we saw soon after arriving were not the charming corn grinding mills of Cervantes  but modern wind turbines instead.

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza

It was about sixty miles to Belmonte, the road passed through several dusty villages and it was busy and very slow.  The navigator fell asleep and I became frustrated by the lack of progress and when an opportunity presented itself left the regional road and joined the motorway instead.

This was much easier because for many Spaniards driving on motorways is too expensive and the traffic density is therefore gloriously low.  This is in contrast to the main trunk roads running parallel to the motorways which are jammed by drivers who are reluctant, or simply cannot afford, to pay the high motorway tolls. Two junctions of the motorway cost €5.20 but it was worth every cent and we left it at the small town of Mota del Cuerva ten miles west of Belmonte.

So far on the journey we had managed really well but with the navigator still drowsy and a little disorientated this was where we managed to get confused and lost for the first time and had to double back and make several detours before emerging on the right side of the town next to a hill with a row of whitewashed Castilian windmills.

Belmonte Castila-La Mancha Spain

We stopped to see and take photographs and visited the little museum and admired the views over the flat, seemingly endless plains on either side of the elevated ridge above the town.  Leaving the windmills behind we drove to Belmonte and arrived at about six o’clock in a curiously quiet and deserted little town.  After a little bit of uncertainty we found the hotel Palacio Buenavista Hospedestra and checked in

It was one of those ‘have I made the right choice’ moments that you can sometimes get on arrival but it turned out to be a delightful and ours was a big room with traditional wooden carved furniture, a polished red tiled floor and a good view over the hotel garden and the church next door.  I have a preference for hotels in smaller towns rather than staying in the big cities because on the whole they are friendlier and almost always cheaper!

Very quickly the moment of doubt passed and I went out to find a shop for a bottle of screw top wine.  On the way I spotted this wonderful door…

Belmonte Door

Later we walked out to find somewhere to eat but this was a sleepy little place and there wasn’t a great deal to do so we found a local bar and went inside for a drink.  There were some local customers gathered around the bar watching the TV and a family at an adjacent table.  There was a sign on the wall that said “No está permitido fumar” but it was next to a cigarette machine and the rule obviously didn’t apply here because the air was thick and grey with swirling acrid smoke.  Anti-smoking legislation became law in Spain on 1st January 2006 but for small bars and restaurants the legislation offers the owner the choice of going smoke free or not but if it doesn’t it means that customers under eighteen years old are allowed in that bar.  This regulation was being flagrantly ignored as well.

It was a very traditional sort of place where the customers had that curious Spanish habit of throwing their litter on the floor just underneath the bar where there was a collection of papers, cigarette ends, sunflower seed shells and other miscellaneous waste that made the place seem most untidy.  They weren’t that used to foreign visitors either and the little girl with the family kept edging closer towards us driven on by curiosity but  always keeping a safe distance just in case we were visitors from another planet, and I suppose, to her, we might just as well have been.

With eating options in the town seriously limited (i.e. non-existent) we returned to the hotel and enjoyed a simple but enjoyable meal in the restaurant together with a bottle of local wine and then after an early start and a long day went back to the room and a long night’s sleep.

Belmonte x 4

Travels in Spain, The Circumnavigation of Madrid

Map Route

For the month of March I invite you to join me on an epic journey to Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y Leon as we set out to circumnavigate the city of Madrid.

The journey will begin in Madrid and the plan is to more or less follow the Ruta de Don Quixote south through the bullfighting town of Chinchón to the town of Belmonte and a visit to the castle of El Cid.  Then to Cuenca, Almagro and Toledo stopping on route to visit a Roman City and the Windmills of Consuegra.

From Toledo, north to the walled city of Ávila and then to Segovia and finally to Alcalá de Henares, the birth place of Cervantes via a Royal Palace and a Medieval Castle.

I hope you will accept my invitation to come along…

Travels in Spain, Icons

Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaRonda Bullring 1paellaFrancesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura SpainConsuegra Windmills SpainEl Cid Burgos SpainEl Quinque Flamenco Show

Road Trip – Portugal to Andalucía and Seville

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.

Andalucia Spain White Town

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.

postcard-map-andalucia

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?