Tag Archives: El Cid

Travels in Spain, Toledo The City of Religion and Steel

Toledo Postcard

“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.

Spain - Historic City of Toledo 1

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.

Acuarela Original

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.

IMG_0161a

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!

Toledo Steel

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Travels in Spain, Castles and Travels of El Cid

castle of Jadraques

This is the castle of Jadraques near Guadalajara in Castilla-La Mancha.

There isn’t a castle in this part of Spain that doesn’t make a claim that El Cid made a visit.

There is no absolute way of knowing if El Cid or his contemporary Alvar Fáñez de Minaya ever really did pass this way but there is a quotation from ‘El Cantar de Mio Cid‘ to provide the evidence that he did.

One thing is for sure – if El Cid did turn up at all the locations that claim that he did then he certainly covered an impressive amount of miles and spent an awful  lot of time in the saddle.

El Cid

Travels in Spain, Belmonte Castle and El Cid

Belmonte Castle

When it was night the Cid lay down. In a deep sleep he fell,
And to him in a vision came the angel Gabriel:
“Ride, Cid, most noble Campeador, for never yet did knight
Ride forth upon an hour whose aspect was so bright.
While thou shalt live good fortune shall be with thee and shine.”    

It was another excellent morning and behind the dark shutters the early morning sun was waiting to strike lack a dagger as soon as they were opened.  The sky was clear and it was  serene and tranquil with absolute silence but for the merry chirruping of the house martins nesting in the garden and already well into their days work.

The breakfast room was busier this morning as a few families had checked in the previous afternoon so while we waited to use the toasting machine I had a look around the room and the pictures on the wall.  At the far end there were photographs of the actor Charlton Heston in the film El Cid and the man on duty behind the bar tried to explain to me in a combination of Spanish and English (mostly Spanish) that some of the movie was filmed right here in Belmonte at the fifteenth century castle that overlooks the town.

El Cid Belmonte Castle

Although the sun was shining it was quite cool in the shade so we kept to the sunny side of the street and after breakfast made for the castle.  On the way we stopped to ask directions and a lady showed us the route but explained in sign language that it wasn’t open at the moment (several times).  This didn’t come as a complete surprise I have to say because there was an enormous crane sticking out of the top of it and even from a distance it was obvious that the builders were in.

Despite this it looked well worth an external visit anyway so we left by a town gate and began to walk up an unmade path towards the castle.  The walk involved quite an arduous climb, especially as I insisted on trying to reach the highest point for the best view and this meant negotiating an almost vertical ascent up a loose shale path that crumbled away under our feet at every step.  I was puffing by the top but tried to pretend that I wasn’t!

But it was worth it and we were rewarded with great views over the town and from here we could clearly see its military footprint because Belmonte is a fortified town at the foot of the magnificently sturdy castle which was part of the ring of fortifications that marked the front line in the medieval power struggle between the Spanish Christians and the African Moors.

On the way back down to the castle we crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston led an assault against the Moors on his white stead Babieca and his mighty sword La Tizona flashing menacingly in the Christian charge.

Belmonte Spain

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion.  He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid.  It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia. It’s a good story but the film takes a lot of historical liberties so it’s best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The castle is a declared national monument and it was closed for some serious renovation and no one seemed to know with any degree of certainty when it would open again.  It was a shame not to be able to visit but we walked around the outside underneath its imposing towers and told ourselves it was a good excuse to come back sometime.   From here there were uninterrupted views over the Meseta, the massive central plateau of Spain laid out like a patchwork quilt in front of us.  It was obvious why they built the castle here because no one was going to sneak up on them, that’s for sure!

Mont St Michel Door

From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where elderly ladies in shabby black dresses and faded floral pinafores sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing the weekend football results and important matters of state.  In the centre of town there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for years, a florist and a photographer.

What we really wanted was a bar with outside tables but there were none and I formed the impression that the town was really only just waking up to spring, like a snowdrop under a fall of snow and after a longer than normal winter wasn’t yet quite certain enough that it was really here and to have the confidence to put the tables and chairs outside without having to hastily bring them back inside again.

Instead we walked to the other side of the town to some more windmills, made a visit to the collegiate church which was absurdly overpriced at €2 each and took about ten minutes to look around (and that was dawdling) and that was it and after only three hours that was Belmonte visited, seen and finished.

Charlton Heston El Cid

Some more posts about El Cid…

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid, the Film, Fact and Fiction

Northern Spain – The City of Burgos

El Cid Charging

Travels in Spain, Madrid to Belmonte via Chinchón

Regions of Spain

Some time ago now we set ourselves the ambitious task of visiting all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain and to begin our quest we chose Castilla-La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote, windmills and wide open plains.

It was an early morning .flight and in razor sharp skies the plane crossed the Atlantic Spanish coast somewhere close to the city of Santander and below us we recognised the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa and then  crossed the massive northern mountainous regions of northern Spain.  It was brown and rocky with huge mysterious pine forests and blue shimmering lakes, long roads negotiating the mountains and valleys and snaking between towns and villages and from above it was possible to begin to appreciate the immense size of the country and of the task that we had set ourselves.

Closer to Madrid the predominant browns gave way to vibrant greens and then into a mosaic of contrasting colour  as the aircraft made its final descent and landed at the airport.  It was rather disorganised but the customs were brilliant and the United Kingdom immigrations control could learn a thing or two about getting passengers through an airport quickly from these guys.

Then collecting the car was gloriously simple as well and within forty minutes we were heading out of the city on the A3 motorway and on our way towards our first destination, the town of Chinchón, about thirty miles south of Madrid.

Chinchon x 4

Not far out of the city the scenery suddenly became more attractive with acres of olive trees and stumpy black vines slumbering in the fields each with the contorted face of a medieval gargoyle concealed within its gnarled and knotted trunk.  In the trees and on top of pylons there were stork nests and in the sky buzzards hung above us on the thermals looking for easy lunch in the fields below.

We arrived in Chinchón at about half past one and ignoring the edge of town tourist car parks steered the car towards the Plaza Mayor at the very centre of the town.  Parking has rarely been easier and there was a perfect spot right in the Plaza and I was sure there must surely be a catch.  There was a glorious blue sky and big sun and it was warm enough to change into summer holiday linens although this did take some of the locals by surprise as they were wrapped up in woollies and coats and still obviously uncertain about and distrustful of the early Spring weather.

Chinchon

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, called ‘claros’ and 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’.

Magnificent 7.Around the World in 80 days Chinchon

After a few minutes spent soaking up the atmosphere we compared menu prices in the bars and selected the cheapest tables on the sunny side of the square and settled down for lunch where we enjoyed salad, calamari and tortilla and after a couple of glasses of Spanish beer set off to explore some of the tiny streets running like a spiders web off of the square.

First through narrow lanes of whitewashed houses to the very top of the town and to a castle with excellent views over the houses and the surrounding villages and countryside but the castle was in a state of serious disrepair and closed to the public so we left and after calling in at the Parador hotel to see how wealthy people spend their holidays we walked to the other side of town and climbed again, this time to the church which had equally good views over the tiled roofs of the houses which in some way reminded me, in an ochre sort of way, of Tuscany.

Chinchon Castle

Beyond the houses there were the surrounding villages and the predominantly buff and grey coloured countryside stretching as far as the horizon.  From this elevated position it was possible to appreciate that despite its close proximity to Madrid that Chinchón is essentially a small Spanish village and despite the Plaza, which grabs all the attention this is a living and working community.

From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where elderly ladies in black dresses sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing important matters of the day.  In the centre of town along streets leading off the Plaza there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for a very long time, a florist and a photographer.

And we were back at the car park; we liked this place and wished that we were stopping longer but it was time to leave now and make our way to our accommodation in the provincial town of Belmonte.

Chinchon Windows

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, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!

Travels in Spain, Images of Alicante

Door Detail AlicanteShip and Storm AlicanteAlicante Sea ScultpturePrisoner Engraving AlicanteAlicante CathedralAlicante Castle SoldierAlicante Postcard