Have Bag, Will Travel
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Tag Archives: Don Quixote
I am fairly certain that I have mentioned here before that I have a travel ambition to visit all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain. So far I have managed fifteen but still need to add La Rioja and Navarre to my list. I could have chosen to go there this time but instead I went to the east coast where I have been previously.
I have been to Valencia and Murcia before and I have always said that it isn’t my favourite part of Spain but now my sister lives there so this provided an opportunity to visit and possibly make a reassessment. I resolved that if possible that this should be a voyage of discovery.
This part of the east coast of Spain is called the Costa Blanca now but it is still quite often referred to by its once regional name of Levante from a time when the Moors had colonial ownership of the Iberian peninsular and had a heavy presence all along this Mediterranean coastline.
It is said that the name Costa Blanca was originally conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom. I think this may explain why I have always been a bit snooty about it because I have always associated it with concrete holiday resorts and as we flew in over Benidorm, gleaming like a shiny pin-cushion I was fairly certain that nothing short of dynamite was going to change my opinion.
This opinion exposes my prejudice and ignorance because the problem that I have is that I find it difficult to get an understanding of Valencia because you need to dig deep to find the true heritage of the place. Nothing shouts out to me like the Flamenco of Andalucía, Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or the Conquistadors of Extremadura, of Gaudi in Catalonia, the Camino Way of Galicia or tales of Saint James and the Reconquista in Castilla y Leon.
The only flimsy thing that I have ever had to go on was the story of El Cid and the battle with the Moors over the city of Valencia
Allow me to go on; it has always concerned me that there are a great many British living in this part of Spain, in Torrevieja alone there are about twelve thousand which accounts for about thirteen per cent of the entire population. In fact the Spanish themselves are in the minority at only forty-eight per cent and soon it is estimated that in total there will be one million Brits living on the Costa Blanca.
It is not only British but also the Scandinavians and the Germans and the Dutch and even the Spanish themselves because as more immigrants arrive then more people from other regions of Spain head east for the jobs that are created. Valencia has some difficulty retaining and protecting its own identity and many local people lament the loss of heritage and language and tradition.
So I got a bigger spade and started to dig a bit deeper to try to learn something about Valencia other than the story of El Cid.
I suppose I have to start with paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia. When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.
They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice. Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.
These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans. Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal. Excuse me while I go to the bathroom to puke just thinking about it!
The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region. After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy. There are no olives or vines in Valencia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.
In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sharp, sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air. Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia. The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of some five hundred fruits.
We landed in Alicante in bright sunshine around about lunch time and after a short drive to the urbanisation of Quesada we immediately settled in to local life by finding a bar with some local tapas. It was good to be in Spain once more.
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) 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 US Freeway 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 kilometre 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, ‘Cien’.
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 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?
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. “
“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”
It was going to be a long day so we rose 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. After breakfast and check out we packed the car and started on the one hundred and fifty kilometre drive to Toledo.
We drove first to the town of Alcázar de San Juan but this wasn’t because of any sort of research just an instinct that it would be interesting based on what seemed to be a promising name. I should have carried out some research because it didn’t seem very appealing at all, there wasn’t a castle to be seen and the clouds had caught up and overtaken us and there was a bleached out sort of chalky whiteness to the sky so we rather rudely carried on without stopping.
Somewhere just west of the town we crossed the old A4 highway and that reminded me of the mad drive through Spain with my brother and two friends in 1984 when we drove from southern Portugal to the French border in thirty-six hours in a ten year old clapped out Ford Escort.
Back in 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 on the left we left the main road and headed towards the whitewashed Castilian town squatting low down on the plain.
From what we saw of the town of Consuegra as we drove through it is rather untidy and uncared for, the streets are grimy and the roads full of precarious potholes but rising high above all of the disappointment is a line of whitewashed, blue domed windmills standing sentinel over the town and the adjacent plain like regimental guards overlooking the town.
Across the crest of the hill, they march like giants. No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword and charged in combat to fight these windmills.
Originally, there were thirteen whitewashed mills 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.
The buildings are tall cylindrical towers capped with dark cones and four big sails that move with the wind. In days gone by, farmers would haul their grain here where the structures harnessed the power of the wind to grind the corn. The windmills and the skills to operate them were passed down from fathers to sons.
Windows placed around the tower of the windmill provide great views today. But that was not their original use. From these windows, the miller could keep watch on the shifting winds. 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 by an aggressive wind.
From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a rather 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.
Although the sun was shining there was a sharp chill at the top of this exposed ridge and the wind moaned through the sail wires and as we walked between the black sails and admired the bulk of the 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.
Shortly after that we left the windmills of Consuegra and continued our journey towards Toledo.
I have been giving some thought to perhaps tackling the Camino myself one day and have been looking at the various different routes. I have to say that I may have a preference for the one that starts in Plymouth in the UK because that would seem to include rather a nice cruise on a P&O ferry across the Bay of Biscay and an evening in the duty free bar followed by a just short stroll from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela.