Tag Archives: Extremadura

Travels in Spain, Icons

Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaRonda Bullring 1paellaFrancesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura SpainConsuegra Windmills SpainEl Cid Burgos SpainEl Quinque Flamenco Show

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

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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.

Alicante Castle

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

Benidorm Spain

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.

paella

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!

valencia-oranges

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.

Tapas Alicante

Travels in Spain – Talavera de La Reina, City of Pots!

Talavera de la Reina Spain

With an ambitious objective to visit all of the regions of Spain and already travelled to the more obvious places such as Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y Leon it was time this visit to be more adventurous.

I have excluded from that short list places such as Galicia, Cantabria, The Basque Country and Catalonia because although we have been there I have become aware that these, although part of the state of Spain, are not really Spain at all and something quite separate and different.

On this occasion we choose Extremadura to the south-west of Madrid, which the guide books claimed to be the least visited part of the country.  With no convenient international airport in the Province it was a choice between Seville or Madrid and the best available flights were to the capital about three hundred kilometres away and a long drive from the cities of Cáceres, Trujillo and Mérida.

In the week before the journey the BBC had been promising rain and cloud which was disappointing so we packed appropriately with rain coats and umbrellas and when we took off from Luton Airport on an early morning flight the sun was beginning to rise in a blue sky and we became resigned to leaving good conditions at home and flying into colder, wetter weather.

Talavera Conquistador Tiles

Across the United Kingdom and the Bay of Biscay the weather remained clear and then we crossed the coast of Spain somewhere near Santander and we could see the snowy peaks of the Picos de Europa mountains and the plains of Castilla y Leon and it appeared that we may have been unnecessarily pessimistic but then as we approached central Spain and Madrid the clouds began to build over the mountains and it looked as though for once the weather forecasters were correct.

By the time we reached Madrid however there was improvement and after we had landed and made our way through arrivals and completed the car hire formalities the sun was winning the competition with the clouds for control of the sky and encouraged by this we left the airport and began our journey west.

In anticipation of rain we had an alternative plan to drive via El Escorial and visit the Royal Palace but we had been there before and with the sun shining we stuck to our original plan to drive to the city of Talavera de la Reina in the north of the Province of Castilla-La Mancha.

It was about one hundred kilometres for this first leg of the journey and the Autovia was practically empty so we enjoyed a trouble-free, toll-free ride all the way to the city, which, with the help of the satnav lady navigator we found easily and parked the Volkswagen Polo in a convenient underground car park close to the centre.

Talavera Fountain

Talavera de la Reina is a city in the western part of the province of Toledo and is the second-largest centre of population in Castile-La Mancha (after Albacete) and the largest in the province, larger even than the city of Toledo itself, although the more famous city naturally remains the provincial capital.  This means that to a certain extent Talavera is a city with an inferiority complex and this isn’t helped by the fact that it isn’t really a primary tourist destination but we are keen to visit as many Spanish cities as possible and we were not going to exclude it from our itinerary.

We emerged from the underground car park into the heart of the city park where there were fountains and statues and leafy walks leading to the Basilica del Prado where we walked and then became confused while looking for the city centre.  It was lunchtime and we were hungry so we quickly reoriented ourselves and then confident about the direction of travel made our way to the city centre where in one of the busy satellite squares we found some tables in the sun and enjoyed a tapas lunch.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums of the world and in the most luxurious palaces all over Europe.  The city is internationally known for its products, which King Philip II used as tiled revetments in many of his works, such as the monastery of El Escorial.  The nickname of Talavera de la Reina is ‘The City of Pottery’ and Mexico’s famous Talavera pottery was named after the place.  We could have guessed this because after lunch we walked through the old city towards the River Tagus and our route took us past a succession of similar ceramics workshops and shops.

Talavera de La Reina Fountain

Eventually we reached the river which is the longest in the Iberian Peninsula and the twelfth longest in Europe.  It is just over a thousand kilometres long and flows all the way to Lisbon in Portugal where it finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along its course there are several dams and diversions supply drinking water to most of central Spain, including Madrid, and Portugal, while dozens of hydroelectric stations create abundant power.

The source of the Tagus is the Fuente de García, in the Montes Universales, Sierra de Albarracín Comarca.  The main cities it passes through are Aranjuez, Toledo, Talavera de la Reina and Alcántara in Spain, and Abrantes, Santarém, Almada and Lisbon in Portugal.

The water was brown and dirty and flowing freely, swollen by all the recent rain that had fallen and the water gnawed at the banks and created muddy whirlpools in between the reeds and we walked alongside it for a while back in the general direction of the car.

The sun was hot now by mid-afternoon and the sky was cloudless so instead of leaving straight away we stopped for a drink in a little café in the park where we had a beer and thanked the BBC for getting the weather forecast wrong as usual!

Talavera de la Reina Ceramic Art Spain

Travels in Spain – Extremadura and Cáceres

Cáceres Extrmadura

“Extremadura was pre-eminently the country of the adventurers for many of them went to the New World… and often returned rich and the region is full of their memorials…. The old part of Cáceres is embellished everywhere with the heraldry of imperial nouveaux-riches, whose principal object of retirement seems to have been to bask in titled superiority to the family next door”            Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

As we walked into the city we passed into the old town through one of the eight- hundred year old Muslim gates.

The city has an eclectic blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the result of many tug-of-war battles fought here throughout history and because of this Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986.

Saint George is the patron saint of the city and the story goes that he knew that there was a dragon terrorizing the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Muslims to Christians he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted (the women weren’t so important it seems) so he slayed the dragon and Cáceres lived in peace.

St George

The route from the splendid gate took us to the immaculate Plaza Mayor which had recently been resurfaced and tidied up in preparation for a submission to be considered as Spain’s representative as the 2016 European capital of Culture. (Ultimately not successful – pipped at the post by San Sebastián in the Basque Region).

It was hot now under a clear blue sky so after we had walked the circumference of the square we took a table at the Meson ‘Los Portales’ and ordered drinks and tapas.  Because of a communication problem (We can’t speak Spanish, the waiter couldn’t understand English) we didn’t get the one that we ordered but it was nice enough and we enjoyed it anyway.

After Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Cáceres in 1227 it flourished during the Reconquest and the Discovery of America, as influential Spanish families and nobles built homes and small palaces here, and many members of families from Extremadura participated in voyages to America where they made their fortune and then returned home to enjoy it.

The colour of the walls was of the richest golden brown to be found anywhere in Spain, as though drenched, steeped, saturated with all the sunlight of centuries of summers.”  –  Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

The old quarter, with its numerous palaces, churches and convents is enclosed by the city wall, most of it Moorish in construction, many of the defence towers are still standing and there are even a few Roman stone blocks visible.  From the Plaza Mayor we walked up the steps and through the Estrella de Churriguer archway.

From there we entered the Plaza de Santa Maria where close by is the Palacio De Los Toledo-Moctezuma, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of Cáceres in the conquest of the Americas because it was built for Techichpotzin  by one of her three Spanish husbands.  Who was  Techichpotzin? I hear you ask, well, let me tell you, she was no less than the daughter of the Aztec ruler Montezuma!

Dominating the square was the Iglesia de Santa Maria so we slipped inside and took a look around carefully remembering to avoid the image of the Cristo de los Blázquez, also known as the Cristo Negro or Black Christ which, tradition has it, brought death to all those who looked at, or touched it.

It cost just €1 to climb to the top of the bell tower so we paid and took the stone spiral staircase to the top where there were good views of the old town and beyond which we shared with all of the Storks that had built their untidy nests at the highest possible points.

Caceres Spain

From here we walked the old narrow streets. Past the Palacio De Los Golfines De Abajo, with its spectacular and architecturally important façade in a style that was widely used in Spain and in South America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This Palacio was where the house the Catholics Kings stayed when they visited Cáceres, as guests of the Golfin family, the most important people in town, and the royal crest is carved above the doorway to prove it.

From the old town we came back to the square and walked into the shopping streets and around the old town walls from the outside and then with the afternoon slipping quickly away we returned to the Plaza Mayor and to the car.  If I was planning this trip again I would have stayed for a night in Cáceres but it was too late now and our accommodation was booked in Mérida about fifty kilometres south.

We estimated that we would be there in a little under an hour and at first all went according to plan until suddenly the motorway was closed and there was a diversion.   I took a decision to take the Badajoz road because although it wasn’t on the route to Mérida it was at least going south and I was confident that there would somewhere be a minor road to make the correction.

Extremadura Map

We started to travel south-west and because this is such a sparsely populated region of Spain it turns out that there are not a lot of roads at all so we just kept going relentlessly towards Badajoz and further and further away from our intended destination.  Eventually after quite a lengthy detour we came across a road that was so new that it wasn’t on the map but it said Mérida so we trusted to luck and took it and started to drive in roughly the right direction

The journey that should have taken under an hour took nearly two and it was very late afternoon/early evening when we arrived at the Hotel Mérida Palace, parked the car and presented ourselves at reception for check in.

Cáceres Extrmadura

Travels in Spain – Trujillo and Francisco Pizzaro

“…the breed of men who conquered a continent with a handful of adventurers, wore hair shirts day and night until they stuck to their flesh, and braved the mosquitoes of the Pilcomayo and the Amazon” –  Gerald Brenan

In the hilltop town of Trujillo standing above the sunburnt plain there stands a statue of a man who changed the course of history – Francisco Pizarro the illegitimate son of a Castilian soldier who, five hundred years ago,  left his home to seek his fortune in the New World.  With fewer than two hundred troops and a few dozen dogs and horses, he conquered the vast empire of the Incas and the Spanish colonisation of South America had begun.

It is a magnificent statue, matched only by that of mighty El Cid in Burgos, and I challenge anyone not to admire it.  Here is the gigantic figure of Pizarro  sitting astride his proud giant of a horse dominating the entire square of Trujillo, head up, beard jutting and plumes flowing as though trying to stay attached to his helmet whilst at full gallop.  The statue captures and epitomises the flare and the audacity of the conquistadors and in his hand he carries a menacing sword but in a message that here was a man who lived and died by the sword the statue has no scabbard which seems to suggest that he rarely ever put the blade away!

Catalonia Wooden Door Detail

Trujillo is a city on the Tozo River, a tributary of the Tagus and is sited on the only hill for miles around about forty kilometres east of Cáceres.  Although the Autovia passes close by it is not an especially busy tourist city so when we drove in and followed signs to the Plaza Mayor we found parking unexpectedly easy just a few metres away from the main square.

The pace of life in the plaza was delightfully slow with a just a few visitors wandering around and others sitting with local people in the bars and cafés around the perimeter. It was pleasantly warm but I would suspect that in high summer this large exposed granite space can become almost like an anvil for the sun and it would be important to find a spot in the shade.

Trujillo has apparently always been a tough old place. “Its inhabitants normally survive on pillage and trickery…” wrote El Idrisi, an Arab traveller, in the fourteenth century – and pillage and trickery were what the Conquistadors did best.  They sent back shiploads of plundered gold and filled their home town with elaborate mansions.

All around the square there are grand palaces and mansions and outside the sixteenth century Iglesia de San Martín in the north-east corner is the reason why, a great equestrian statue of the famous Spanish conquistador.  It is an interesting coincidence that many of the sixteenth century explorers and adventurers who carved out the Spanish Empire in South America came from Extremadura and as well as Pizzaro, Hérnan Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs and founded Mexico, Hernando De Soto, who explored Florida, and Pedro de Almagro, who accompanied Pizzaro, all came from this harsh south-west corner of Spain.

Francisco Pizzaro was born in Trujillo and became a conquistador who travelled along much of the Pacific coast of South America.  I imagine he wasn’t an especially pleasant man – with an army of only one hundred and eighty men and less than thirty horses he encountered the ancient Incan empire and brutally and quickly conquered it, killing thousands of natives, including the Inca King Atahualpa and stealing immense hoards of gold, silver, and other treasures for the King of Spain and for himself including the Inca King’s wife who he took for a mistress.

As a consequence of Pizzaro’s adventures, Spain temporarily became the greatest, richest and most powerful country in the world and as well as conquering Peru and founding the city of Lima, he also added Ecuador and Columbia to the Spanish Empire thus providing immense new territories and influence and spreading Roman Catholicism to the New World.

TheMission-Filmszene-16836

We walked out the Plaza Mayor and followed the steep cobbled lanes as they twisted their sinuous way up past buildings constructed of attractive mellow stone, past the inevitable Parador and more churches and mansions until finally we were at the top at the Alcázar of the Moors who controlled this city for five hundred years before the Reconquista.

Inside the castle we walked around the high stone walls glinting in the sunshine and stopped frequently to admire the uninterrupted views over the sun-baked dehesa of Extremadura spreading endlessly in every direction in a ragged patchwork of agricultural green, gold and brown where distant villages float on the vastness all the way to Portugal and stunted oaks and olive trees provide the only cover in a harsh terrain.

Walking back down to the plaza was a great deal easier than the energy sapping climb but we got lost in the cobweb of tiny streets and surprised ourselves by emerging at an unexpected entrance to the square which was jam-packed with cars on account of it being the end of school for the day and parents were collecting their children to take them home.

It was a little past lunch time and we were overdue something to eat so we examined the menus at the pavement restaurants and when Kim was satisfied with our choice we found a seat in the sun and ordered some local dishes and a glass of cold beer.

Francisco Pizarro

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Victory

“…the breed of men who conquered a continent with a handful of adventurers, wore hair shirts day and night until they stuck to their flesh, and braved the mosquitoes of the Pilcomayo and the Amazon” –  Gerald Brenan

The Conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro…

It is a magnificent statue, matched only by that of El Cid in Burgos, and I challenge anyone not to admire it.  Here is the gigantic figure of Pizarro  astride his proud giant of a horse dominating the entire square of Trujillo, head up, beard jutting and helmet plumes flowing as though trying to stay attached to his armour whilst at full gallop.

The statue captures and epitomises the flare and the audacity of the conquistadores and in his hand he carries a menacing sword but in a message that here was a man who lived and died by the sword the statue has no scabbard which seems to suggest that he rarely ever put the blade away!

Francisco Pizzaro was born in Trujillo and became a conquistador who travelled along much of the Pacific coast of South America. With an army of only one hundred and eighty men and less than thirty horses he encountered the ancient Incan empire and brutally and quickly conquered it, killing thousands of natives, including the Inca King Atahualpa and stealing immense hoards of gold, silver, and other treasures for the King of Spain and for himself including the Inca King’s wife who he took for a mistress.

As a consequence of Pizzaro’s adventures, Spain became the greatest, richest and most powerful country in the world at the time and as well as conquering Peru and founding the city of Lima, he also added Ecuador and Columbia to the Spanish Empire thus providing immense new territories and influence and spreading Roman Catholicism to the New World.

Francisco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura

Entrance Tickets – The Castillo at Trujillo

Castillo Trujillo

We walked out the Plaza Mayor and followed the steep cobbled lanes as they twisted their sinuous way up past buildings constructed of attractive mellow stone, past the inevitable Parador and more churches and mansions until finally we were at the top at the Alcázar of the Moors who controlled this city for five hundred years before the Reconquista.

Inside the castle we walked around the high stone walls glinting in the sunshine and stopped frequently to admire the uninterrupted views over the sun-baked dehesa of Extremadura spreading endlessly in every direction in a ragged patchwork of agricultural green, gold and brown where distant villages float on the vastness all the way to Portugal and stunted oaks and olive trees provide the only cover in a harsh terrain.  But although it sounds bleak, this dramatic landscape has a barren beauty –  this is Spain’s unspoilt heartland.

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