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Have Bag, Will Travel
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“Don Quixote is the national glory of Spain. No one who does not know that has the right to call himself a Spaniard. There is a monument to him in Madrid…he was our first revolutionary.” – Gerald Brenan, ‘South from Granada’
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery of pictures that I have picked up along the way on my own travels in Spain…
Last time out I was in Berlin in Germany and was surprised to find so few grand statues. Not so in Madrid which was my next destination.
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More posts about statues…
From Besalu in Catalonia to Chinchon in Castilla-La Mancha about four hundred and fifty miles to the south.
The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies all painted a uniform shade of green called ‘claros’ and below these shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.
It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight as it happens, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
“A castle stands sentinel across the stream; harsh grey hills are all about: the setting of Toledo is all abrasion, nothing soft, nothing hospitable, nothing amusing. This is the Spanish character at its most intractable” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
The car park might have been conveniently right on the edge of the City but to get there involved a rather strenuous climb to reach it because old Toledo is built on the top of a craggy outcrop of rock which sits like a Stork’s nest that in the Middle Ages made it impregnable to hostile forces.
The whole city is a sort of natural castle with a moat, the Tagus River, running in a looping gorge around three sides of it. The only way an enemy could take it was to attack the north side and that was difficult because not surprisingly that was the most strongly fortified part of the city walls. The Tagus, by the way, is the fourth longest river in Western Europe and the most important in Iberia and from Toledo it flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon in Portugal.
Toledo has always been one of the most important cities in Spain and for many years actually contested the status of capital with nearby Madrid and was in fact the principal city until 1560. But Madrid gradually came to prominence under the Hapsburg Monarchy and Phillip II moved his court there and made it his Capital in 1561.
Toledo compensated for this by reinventing itself as the principal religious city in the country and today remains the seat of the Primate of all Spain. To walk around the cramped streets of Toledo and browse the souvenir shops is the closest you can get in Spain to being in Rome as replicas of the Saints stare out from every shop window.
This to is the city of El Greco, the greatest artist of his age and his religious paintings and his interpretations of the scriptures that represent Toledo as a brooding cauldron of spiritual energy are never far away.
At the end of the climb from the car park we entered the city at the busy main square, the Plaza Zocodover, which was surrounded by tall imperial buildings and confusing little streets leaking away into deep shadows in all directions. Without a map we were rather confused and disorientated because this was easily the biggest place we had visited so far.
After a while we established our bearings and walked to the Alcázar, which was closed today for improvements and a planned new museum but being at the top of the city did have spectacular views over the river and the lands stretched out to the south. We were still unsure of our location and after an aborted refreshment stop at a bar with a broken loo and unacceptably loud music we threaded our way into the maze of narrow streets and walking in the general direction of the Cathedral.
After lunch we walked to the Cathedral and paid the entrance fee of €7, which turned out to be excellent value compared to the €2 to get into the tiny church in Belmonte. It is one of the biggest cathedrals in the world and the interior is not at all austere as some cathedrals can be. Slightly annoying was the fact that for those who didn’t want to pay the admission charge they could enter by a side door and although they couldn’t walk around freely and see all of the internal rooms and the especially impressive choir area, they could certainly see and appreciate the magnificent structure for free.
Outside the Cathedral we found a tourist information office and now we had a map the city was suddenly much easier to negotiate. In the past Toledo had changed hands many times and it was renowned for its diversity and religious toleration and we visited a synagogue with, unusually for a synagogue, free admission and then after walking through a warren of mazy streets came out on the other side overlooking the modern town to the north.
Every available square metre of this rocky outcrop has been built upon and the buildings are heaped together in a random and haphazard way with cobbled lanes revealing new delights at every twist and turn. We negotiated the narrow confusing streets and the surprises back towards the Plaza Zocodover and as we did so passed through an area of artisans workshops where metal workers were making swords and knives and displaying them in the windows.
Traditionally Toledo (like Sheffield in England) is famous for its production of steel and especially of swords and the city is still a centre for the manufacture of knives and other steel implements designed for stabbing people. In the tourist shops slashing swords and dangerous daggers compete for selling space with the holy Saints and religious icons.
For soldiers and adventurers in past times a sword made of Toledo steel was a must have item because the quality of the steel and the skill of the blacksmith combined to make an exceptionally strong and perfect lethal weapon. In literature and film the Three Musketeers had Toledo steel swords and so did Don Diego de la Vega who was more famously known as Zorro.
The manufacturing process was a carefully guarded secret and to make such an exceptional weapon they had to select the very best raw materials and then follow a complicated technical process to achieve the right balance between hard and soft steel forged at a temperature of 1454º Fahrenheit for exactly the right length of time and followed by a critical cooling and shaping process. So complicated was this whole procedure and so perfect was the finished weapon that to achieve this level of precision a master craftsman would typically only be able to make two or three blades in a year.
Little wonder that they were so expensive!
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.
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..
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!
“It gave me vertigo to imagine what it must be like living up there, a permanent aviator above the trees” Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’
From Belmonte to Cuenca was a distance of about sixty miles and leaving Belmonte the drive took us first of all through gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours that rolled rhythmically but desolately away in all directions. A stunning vista of subtle hues and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter-milk cream, dusty olive, lavender grey, pheasant copper and russet gold that were almost autumnal all lying lifeless and crushed under the burden of a vivid blue spring sky.
Now we were on the ‘Ruta de Don Quixote’ which is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of castles and windmills stretching all the way in a circuitous route from Madrid to Toledo.
We were using a relatively minor road and after half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills there was more drama with steep sided hills and pine forests and the busy water of the Júcar River dashing madly through narrow gorges. We were approaching the city of Cuenca.
Cuenca is a big city and capital of the fifth largest province in Spain but we found a parking spot next to the river with surprising ease. The city was built here because the rocky outcrop of land lies between two deep river gorges, the Júcar and the Huécar and it made an excellent location for a defendable fortress.
At three hundred miles long the Júcar is a big river but it was not especially lively today in the City and we followed a man in a battered sombrero along the path next to the lethargic oozy green water that slipped lazily by until we came to steep steps that took us away from the water and up towards the old city, through a crumbling arch and into the main street to the top. On the way we passed some brightly coloured tall buildings just before a narrow archway in the road underneath the town hall that led into the Plaza Mayor.
In the Plaza there were more gaily coloured houses, shops and pavement cafés and bars and the city’s Cathedral that was completed in the thirteenth century but partly fell down in 1902 and over a hundred years later the rebuilding of the façade still remains to be fully completed and remains a curious mix of architectural styles from Anglo-Norman to Iberian Gothic.
We continued to the top stopping on the way to climb the castle walls and to admire the scenery of the gorges stretching out seemingly endlessly on either side of the city. Climbing even further we reached the very top and here there were various vantage points of the city from elevated craggy rocks where people, without the precaution of a parachute were walking out and taking as much risk as they might dare just to get the perfect selfie photograph.
Standing above the vast ravine that winds its way around Cuenca I could suddenly see why this was once regarded as the unconquerable city. This ancient citadel is perched on a steep rocky peak, high above the surrounding plain, and the treacherous gorge below encircles the city like a moat and this is the deepest moat you’ve ever seen, a giddy drop of several hundred feet, with nothing beneath to break a fall.
From this position it was clear to see how the city had developed. There was only limited space at the top of the rock so as it grew and it was unable to expand outwards the city went up instead and that explained the tall houses. Even more dramatically it also went as far as it possibly could in making use of all available space and in the fifteenth century houses were built like Swallow’s nests with rooms and balconies partly and precariously overhanging the gorge above the Huécar River.
These are called the Las Casas Colgadas, the hanging houses, and are the most famous attraction in the city.
It was time for lunch but at half past three the bars and restaurants were all overcrowded and doing brisk business and with no prospect of a seat there we had to walk back towards the town and discovered a place in full sun overlooking a rather splendid convent. I was surprised that the town was so full but we learned later that today was Father’s day in Spain and all of the children were off school and out with their parents for the day.
We decided to have some tapas but the menu was giving nothing away in assisting with a selection of dishes we didn’t recognise and the waitress could give no helpful explanation except in Spanish so we went for the ‘surprise me option’ and stabbed a nervous finger towards a couple of items on the menu and sat back in anticipation.
When it arrived we had a chicken dish and a sort of mutton stew, which we probably wouldn’t have knowingly selected but it was tasty and filling and we ate it all and when we had finished we communicated to the waitress the best that we could that we had thoroughly enjoyed it in that polite sort of way that we do when we cannot speak each other’s language.
It was late afternoon so we left Cuenca getting slightly lost in the tangle of streets on the way out and with no real alternative returned to Belmonte by the same route, first through the rugged hills, the raging water and the winding road and then to the gentle rolling plains, the languid fields and the long straight road.
Later we walked out again and even though this was Father’s day Belmonte was just as quiet as the night before but we found a nice bar in a hotel in the centre of town where we had drinks and olives before returning to the Palacio Buenavista Hospedestra for evening meal, a last drink in the bar and a second early night.
It had been a very good day indeed!
I stand here in my place,
With my foot on the rock below,
And whichever way it may blow,
I meet it face to face,
As a brave man meets his foe.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I came across this windmill in the coastal town of Lo Pagan in the region of Murcia on the east coast of Spain.
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.
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.
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…
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.