Have Bag, Will Travel
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“The Supreme Caliphate of Cordoba was set up in rivalry to the Abbasside dynasty of Baghdad and was so cultured, sophisticated broad-minded and fastidious a state that for a century southern Spain was the lodestar of Europe”, Jan Morris
Although the road was swinging encouragingly to the south it couldn’t keep us sufficiently ahead of the cloud and by the time we reached the city of Córdoba it was clear that we couldn’t outrun it and it beginning to overtake us.
It was still patchy as we parked the car but by the time we had set off for the centro historico its advance was relentless and it became quite gloomy, overcast and cold and we were all beginning to regret the lightweight clothing option that we had selected earlier. It was lunchtime so we looked for somewhere warm to stop and eat and came across a restaurant with a reasonable menu del dai at only €10 and we enjoyed a pleasant if not an especially spectacular lunch.
Outside the weather had not improved as we had dined and we were disappointed to find that one of the two principal attractions the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos was closed for the afternoon so we had to make do with the external views and move on to Córdoba’s Great Mosque.
Situated amongst a lattice work of narrow streets, patios and plazas in the city’s old Jewish quarter the Mezquita was once the second largest mosque in the world and at the completion of its construction this was the grandest and most beautiful mosque constructed by the Moors anywhere in Spain.
After the Spanish Reconquest, it was transformed into a church and today it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral and the main church of the diocese of Córdoba. This is the good things about buildings, when they are no longer required for their original purpose they can always be converted to some other use. All over Spain Mosques were converted to Christian Churches, Arab Alcazabas to medieval fortresses and more recently stately homes, haciendas and castles to modern Parador hotels.
It was getting even colder and there was a spot of rain or two so we were pleased to buy admission tickets and go inside in the warm for a while.
I think I can rightly say that the mosque of Córdoba is without doubt one of the finest buildings in Spain – the most original and the most beautiful. From the moment of entering the great court planted with rows of orange trees there was a feeling of peace and harmony which is quite different from the mood of religious holiness and austerity imparted by some Christian cloisters.
Inside it was immediately spectacular with almost a thousand columns of granite, jasper and marble supporting the roof and creating a dazzling visual effect. When the Cathedral was constructed in the sixteenth century some of these pillars and arches were removed which I suppose might be described as an act of vandalism but in actual fact, despite being a sort of cuckoo in the nest, the Baroque structure didn’t seem to be entirely out of place.
“To Cordoba belong all the beauty and ornaments that delight the eye or dazzle the sight.” – Stanley Lane-Poole – The Moors in Spain
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
It took some time to walk through the Mezquita and see all of the highlights and explore hidden dark corners and when we left and returned to the courtyard it had thankfully stopped raining and although it was still quite cold the temperature had thankfully risen a degree or two above zero. We walked for a while down by the river and crossed half way on the Puente Romano, which is an elaborate bridge that still sits on original Roman foundations and was used as another Game of Thrones location, this time the Long Bridge of Volantis.
On account of the weather we didn’t really see Córdoba at its best and the grey skies took the edge of the visit and because of that we walked back to the car stopping briefly for a drink and a warm in a café and then drove back to Carmona.
Once in the car there was a continual chorus from the back seat of ‘put the heater on’ and I had to agree that it was a bit chilly. We took the direct route back along the Autovia which confirmed that there were no tolls and as we drove west the weather started to improve and by the time we arrived back at our hotel the sun was breaking through again.
Across the square was a café bar called the Bar Plaza and later that evening, even though we hadn’t intended going inside, the owner spotted us in the street and shepherded us in through the doorway in a much practiced customer gathering round-up routine and before we had time to make our own decision he had taken drinks orders and provided us with menus and there seemed to be a sort of commitment to dine there. Actually it was rather good and we ordered a range of dishes and shared them between us.
When we left the Bar Plaza it was raining again so went straight back to the hotel where we had a last drink in the lounge and a hand or two of cards before going to bed at about midnight feeling a bit uneasy about the weather prospects for the next day.
It was a glorious morning and although it was slightly chilly there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the perfect blue sky and we interpreted this as a really promising sign and although this was November dressed appropriately in summer linens and short-sleeved shirts. After all we were in Spain!
Together with a lot of local people we had a traditional breakfast at the Goya and this made a nice change from the usual hotel buffet arrangement that we usually have. It was a simple affair with a choice of toasted bread drizzled with olive oil and a thin tomato puree and topped off with thin slices of cured ham or alternatively, for those who didn’t care for the ham, toast and marmalade made from finest Seville oranges.
After breakfast we prepared for a drive to the city of Córdoba about a seventy miles to the east along the River Guadalquivir. Córdoba is a moderately sized place today but once it was the largest Roman city in Spain and later became the thriving capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba that once governed almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. It has been estimated that in the tenth century it was the largest city in Western Europe and, perhaps, in the whole world with up to half a million inhabitants. If this is true then only Constantinople and Rome would have previously been bigger and even today a population that size would be in the top three in Spain.
As always of course, be wary of biggest, highest, widest claims!
We didn’t take the direct motorway route because we thought the alternative may be more scenic and anyway we were worried about paying unnecessary road tolls. This proved to be a mistake on both counts because it wasn’t especially picturesque and there weren’t any tolls either.
First we drove to the town of Lora Del Rio along a road that took us through an agricultural landscape with fields all freshly ploughed and waiting for next year’s grain crops. Although the highest mountains on the Spanish mainland are in Andalusia most of the Province, which stretches from the deserts of Almeria in the east to the Portuguese border in the west is a flat plain in the valley of the Guadalquivir, which at nearly four hundred miles is the fifth longest river in Spain and is one of the country’s most important because it irrigates a fertile valley, and creates a rich agricultural area.
Lora del Rio was an unexceptional working town and there was nothing to stop for so we continued along the road through the similar towns of Palma del Rio and Posadas. On our left, to the north, was the Sierra Morena mountain range that separates Andalusia from the central plain of Castilla-La Mancha and there were some worrying accumulations of cloud that looked a little too close for comfort. Eventually we came to Almodóvar del Rio where a large castle was perched strategically on the top of a hill and this looked well worth stopping for.
The Castillo de Almodóvar is a grandiose Caliphal fortress erected on a high mound along the Guadalquivir. Square towers flank its towering walls and the entire castle is surrounded by a large moat. During the years of occupation it was a Moorish stronghold and after the reconquest it became the medieval home for members of the Spanish nobility. It gradually fell into disrepair however and much of it was plundered for convenient building material by the people of the nearby town but the Count of Torralba rebuilt it a hundred years or so ago restoring the external appearance of the original Arab fortification.
The castle was used as filming location for the TV series Game of Thrones where it was used (if anyone is interested, I know that I’m not) to represent the castle of Highgarden, the seat of House Tyrell in the Reach on the Mander River.
At its elevated position there was a spectacular view of the plains to the south and the mountains to the north and although the sun was shining it was getting cold and the clouds were getting closer. We visited the castle in the company of a school outing who were enjoying an interactive history lesson which must have been highly entertaining judging by all of the laughter and giggles.
It was a good castle and well worth the €5 entrance fee and we climbed the towers and walked the ramparts and when we had seen all there was to see we left and continued the drive to Córdoba.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
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?
“And so to the great Cathedrals of Spain, Romanesque, Traditional, Gothic or Renaissance, which are the flower of the Spanish constructions and which for the world outside generally epitomises the Spanish presence, As the Skyscrapers are to New York, the Cathedrals are to Spain” – Jan Morris, ‘Spain’
Segovia, Castilla y Leon
Palencia, Castilla y Leon
Burgos, Castilla y Leon
Siguenza, Castilla-la Mancha
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
León, Castilla y Leon