Have Bag, Will Travel
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Tag Archives: El Cid
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.
If you are travelling to Spain and want to avoid the coast and the obvious tourist traps then let me make some suggestions…
“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’
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 neighbours, Ciudad Real and Bolaños de Calatrava and it became the quiet town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.
At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide the Plaza Major is one of the finest in all of Spain, flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of 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.
“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.” – George Orwell
Antequera has always been an important place due its geographical position as it falls on a natural crossroads east/west between Seville and Granada and north/south between Malaga and Cordoba and the Moors built their most impregnable castle at this place to protect their possessions in Iberia.
Plaza San Sebastian is at the very bottom of the city at a busy roundabout junction where every major road in the city seems to converge, a bubbling pink marble water fountain, a modern monument that marks the junction of two Roman roads, a proud church, several grand buildings and overshadowed by the looming presence of the Alcazaba, a steep cobble-stoned hill climb away. The steps are steep but lead to the castle gate and inside is the Plaza de Santa Maria dominated by the biggest church in town.
“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell
This is a fine place – better than Barcelona! The old town is packed onto a hillside alongside the river, which is spanned by a series of bridges that lead to the shopping area. One bridge leads to Carrer de la Força, which, it’s hard to believe was once part of the Via Augusta, the road that led across Spain from Rome, and from the tenth to the end of the fifteenth century was the main street of one of Europe’s most important Jewish quarters.
The visitor will climb all the time but make frequent and sometimes pointless diversions into side streets and blind alleys, up steep steps and along difficult cobbled passageways, always grateful for shade in this labyrinth of enchanting lanes.
Eventually everyone will arrive in the square in front of Santa Maria Cathedral whose Baroque façade conceals an austere Gothic interior that was built around a previous Romanesque church, of which the cloisters and a single tower remain. After the climb find the energy to climb the steps from the square to the Cathedral and go inside to visit the interior of the building and see the World’s widest Gothic nave and the second widest overall after St. Peter’s in Rome
“…Sigüenza, ninety miles from Madrid, remains a quiet spot in an empty landscape. It sits among narrow valleys celebrated by Camilo José Celar in his ‘Journey to the Acarria’” – Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’
Sigüenza has always occupied an important strategic geographical position in a narrow valley on the main road and railway line between Madrid and Aragon and Catalonia. This is not a surprise, the Romans, the Moors and the Catholic Monarchs of the Reconquista had all previously fortified this place.
For a small town the cathedral is an immense building and one of the most important late Romanesque buildings in Spain which was built to symbolise the power of Bishop Don Bernardo who began construction in the twelfth century. It has three naves and a main chapel with an ambulatory and a dome and around the outer walls are a series of commemorative chapels which reads like a who’s who of the local campaigns of the Reconquista.
Inside is the jewel of the Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine which houses the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce where in what is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish funerary art is his alabaster statue decorated with the cross of Santiago as he lies serenely on his side while casually reading a giant book. The authors of the Spanish Generation of 1898 (a group of patriotic artists and philosophers) drew national attention to the statue by naming him ‘el doncel de Sigüenza’ – the boy of Sigüenza.
In the Plaza Major café tables are arranged in the shadow of the South Tower which reaches high into the blue sky and has small-fortress like windows at regular intervals and the description fortress-like is rather appropriate because they bear the marks of shell damage inflicted on the building in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.
It was our final day in Andalucía. The sun was shining. We debated changing our plans. We decided to stick to the agreed itinerary and drive to Málaga. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed south to the city which happens to be the birthplace of the artist Pablo Picasso, the actor Antonio Banderas and the golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
It took about an hour to drive to the city and when we arrived I was horrified to discover just how big it is and difficult to navigate. Málaga is the sixth largest city in Spain and the biggest most southerly city in all of Europe (apologies to Valletta which is slightly further south but only half the size). Eventually we found a parking space in an underground car park and emerged from subterranean level blinking into bright sunlight somewhere close to the old town.
The journey had been stressful. We needed a drink. We found a pavement bar close to the centre and found a vacant table where we could examine the city map and get our bearings.
It was Saturday and Málaga was busy. There was a cruise ship in the harbour and tourists were wandering around like a plague of locusts, local people were out shopping (Kim reliably informs me that this is what people do on a Saturday morning) and the area was well provided for by roaming street entertainers. We stayed for a while and after paying the staggeringly high bill then wandered off in the direction of the cathedral but we didn’t go inside because having just spent so much on a beer we were put off by the cost of admission so instead we made our way to the harbour and after that the beach.
It has to be said that this is a very good beach indeed and we walked for a couple of miles along a promenade which ran adjacent to a crescent arc of lush caramel sand and gentle blue water that softly caressed the inviting shoreline. As we walked we assessed the beach restaurants where fresh fish and bubbling paella was being prepared on flaming barbeques and made a decision where we might eat.
Unfortunately we left this a bit late and by the time we had decided our first, second and third choices were all full up with no prospect of available tables for at least an hour or more. So we walked some more and then some more again and when we guessed that the time might be right we returned to our first choice and luckily there was a table free and we enjoyed a meal of fresh red snapper and a house salad. It tasted divine.
After lunch we walked back to the city centre and while Kim went to the shops I returned to the cathedral. There was a service in place now which meant there was no longer an admission fee and because that is the sort of good luck that I really appreciate I took advantage of my good fortune, wandered inside and mingled with the worshippers until it was all over and then spent an agreeable thirty minutes exploring the church and the side chapels before stepping back into the sun-splashed streets.
I confess that I hadn’t been absolutely sure that I would like Malaga, it once had a reputation for boozy Brits and cheap holidays but this is a city that has thoroughly reinvented itself. Gone is its seedy reputation as a playground for misbehaving tourists and instead the capital of the Costa Del Sol has been revived as a cultural destination only narrowly missing out to Donostia-San Sebastián as the 2016 European Capital of Culture. As I stepped out of the Cathedral I knew that I liked it here.
Malaga is a business hub and a tourist city now but it has a long and varied history. The Romans built a city here and we walked alongside the ancient theatre, the Moors were here of course before the Reconquista and then the Christians built a castle on the site of an abandoned Alcazaba.
Málaga was one of the locations where Muslim rule persisted the longest, having been part of the Emirate of Granada. While most other parts of the peninsula had already been won back the Moors still occupied Málaga. It was finally retaken by Christian forces in August 1487, only five years before the fall of Granada. The Muslim inhabitants resisted assaults and artillery bombardments before hunger forced them to surrender – virtually the entire population was sold into slavery – that is Christian charity for you!
We paid the modest admission price and then climbed steadily towards the top. The lower areas of the castle are functional and militaristic but at the top there is a Palace almost as good as that at the Alhambra with shaded gardens where sunshine was trying to break in like a thief, fine Moorish architecture and a sense that this was once a place not just of military muscle but also of intellectual appreciation of the finer things in mediaeval life.
When we arrived six hours earlier we wondered how we would fill the day as we waited for our flight home but as it happened the day was slipping away rapidly now as we left the castle and returned to the car park along a busy street that was filling up with local people out for a wander around the Saturday night streets.
We stopped at a bar for a final drink and watched the evening entertainment and then reluctantly paid up, left, returned to the car and drove to the airport for our late night flight back to UK.
We had enjoyed our few days in Andalucía but with so much more to see we agreed that we would surely have to return.
“Granada! Holy place of the glory of Spain,
Your mountains are the white tents of pavilions,
Your walls are the circle of a vase of flowers,
Your plain a Moorish shawl embroidered with colour,
Your towers are palm trees that imprison you” – José Zorrilla y Moral
We had a good room in a nice hotel in Romilla and from the balcony we began to adjust to the pace of the place which, it has to be said was dangerously close to reverse.
The sun was shining now so we went for a stroll at what I would describe as a sort of normal walking pace but which seemed to startle a couple of the locals who were busy sitting around doing nothing and who broke out into a sweat just watching us amble by and then we came across a bar who seemed surprised to suddenly have some customers. Anyway, it was very pleasant sitting in the sun at last and we stayed for a second beer and the barman prepared us some complimentary tapas.
I was reluctant to raise the issue of the obvious absence of restaurants in Romilla but despite my efforts to avoid it conversation inevitably turned to evening dining arrangements. These were so limited that our only real option was to return to a service station at the side of the nearby main road. This could have been a disaster for me but luckily it turned out fine, there was a motel on the site and an excellent reasonably priced restaurant where we enjoyed an unexpectedly good meal.
We had an unusually early start the following morning because we were driving to Granada and had timed entrance tickets to the Alhambra Palace complex and believe me this is a good tip – make sure you book in advance on line because entrance tickets are strictly limited to a prescribed number and if you turn up on the day expecting to buy a ticket and it is full then you won’t get in. End of!
I have been to Granada several times as it happens. Not this one of course but the Granada Cinema in my home town of Rugby. What a flea-pit it was. A towering brick building built in 1933 and originally called the Plaza but later in 1946 changing its name to the Granada in the same way as so many others as they borrowed continental place names such as Alhambra, Rialto, Amalfi and Colosseum to make them sound more exciting. Later car manufacturers did exactly the same of course and we had the Ford trio of Corsair, Cortina and Granada, Triumph had the Toledo and the Dolomite and the Seat the Ibiza and the Cordoba.
And not just Granada, I have also been to the Alhambra, that is the Alhambra public house in Coventry which was on the once a month Saturday night pub trail when I was a lot younger.
It was a short drive to Granada, one of the great cities of Iberia, located at the confluence of four major rivers and at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest in all of Spain and still snow capped at the highest peaks which created a picturesque backdrop as we made our final approach to the Alhambra.
At ten o’clock it wasn’t especially busy and we easily collected our tickets and began our visit to a place that with three million visitors a year claims to be the most visited site in Spain.
Top ten most visited are Alhambra, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Mosque at Cordoba, Santiago de Compostella, Burgos Cathedral, the Alcazar of Segovia, Roman Theatre at Merida, Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Cathedral and La Giralda in Seville and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I have visited them all except for the Guggenheim.
We began in the gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace of the Sultans and Emirs and built in the shadow of the mountains in the coolest spot on the site away from the suffocating heat of the Alhambra itself.
The Alhambra complex was built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain during the the Nasrid dynasty who at the time were increasingly subject to the Christian Kings of Castile. After the final expulsion of the Moors and being allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, the buildings occupied by squatters, the Alhambra was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, who carried out retaliatory destruction of the site. It has been restored now to its former glory and exhibits the country’s most significant and most precious Islamic architecture.
The 1492 surrender of the Islamic Emirate of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs is one of the most significant events in the history of Granada as it marked the completion of the Reconquista of Al-Andalus. As part of the deal the Muslims were allowed to stay in Granada and afforded religious toleration but within only a few years the Christians reneged on this and those who refused to convert were expelled.
Christians took possession of the site and added a cathedral and a castle complex and sometime later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V demolished part of the site and built himself a grand palace but then having gone to all that trouble he never bothered to move in. What a waste!
Fortunately today much of the Palace of the Moors remains intact (restored of course) and eventually we used our timed tickets to join a queue to go inside. It was wonderful and it immediately transported us back to Morocco and the Palaces of Marrakech and Meknes.
Hanging gardens, foaming fountains and sparkling streams of water, cool welcome shade, sunshine trying to break in like a thief, startlingly fine alabaster white stucco work, geometric tiled patterns exploding with colour, decoration like stalactites dripping from the elaborate ceilings, carved columns and horseshoe arches and I immediately understood why this just might be the number one place to visit in Spain.
We stayed as long as we possibly could in the Palace complex but inevitably the flow of visitors carried us like an estuary to the exit and we left with an overwhelming feeling of total satisfaction.
In the heat of the afternoon we visited the Palace of Charles V and the museum inside and then the Alcazaba with stunning views over the whole of the city of Granada.
I had hoped that I might persuade Kim to walk down into the city centre and at least visit the towering cathedral but I could tell that she wasn’t particularly keen so I kept that suggestion to myself with the thought that one day we might return to Granada and see all of the things that we were now going to miss.
Perhaps we should have stayed in Granada rather than Romilla but it was too late to reverse that decision now so we made our weary way back to the village and the hotel El Soto de Roma and rested a while before making our way back to the village bar for wine and tapas and later we returned to the motorway service station for evening meal where we reflected on a really excellent day.