Tag Archives: Extremadura

Travels in Spain, the Roman City of Mérida

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After lunch the antiquities were all closed for the siesta and wouldn’t open again for a couple of hours so we went back to the Mérida Palace.  It was hot and the sun was shining so it our intention to sit on the sun terrace on the roof, read a book, have a glass of wine and do a bit of lazy sitting about.

For no good reason (as far as I could make out) the sun terrace was closed and when I enquired at reception the receptionist said that they were unable to open it because it was too early in the year and it wasn’t warm enough!  I was perplexed by that, in England we will sit on beaches in May even though the temperature is just a fraction above zero!

Kim rested in the room and in search of sun I sat on the patio at the front of the hotel and sneaked a can of Mahou beer down from the room so that I didn’t have to pay the inflated hotel prices.  It was nice just sitting and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the square but with the sun moving behind the hotel and throwing us quickly into shadow it was time to resume our sightseeing and to use the rest of our entrance tickets.

We walked towards the River Guadiana because our first destination was the original Roman Bridge built over two thousand years ago.

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At five hundred miles long, the River Guadiana is the fourth longest in the Iberian Peninsula and for part of its course marks the boundary between Spain and Portugal.  At this point the river is about five hundred yards wide and spanning it is the sixty arch Roman Bridge that remained the principal road for traffic entering the city until as recently as 1993.

Mérida was proving to be a really fascinating place with the oldest this, the biggest that, the best preserved, the most unique and now was added the longest remaining Roman bridge.  It is pedestrianised now and we walked away across towards the centre and looked over the sides into the muddy brown water of the river below.

We didn’t all the way across to the other side but stopped and returned to the east bank because next we were visiting the Alcazaba, a ninth century Muslim fortification  located near the bridge that was built in 835 to command the city. It was the first (here we go again) Muslim Alcazaba, and includes a big squared line of walls, every side measuring one hundred yards in length, twenty foot high, nearly two feet thick and incorporating twenty-five towers all built re-using Roman walls and Roman-Visigothic edifices in granite.

The Plaza Mayor was busy but quieter tonight mostly because there weren’t any football matches taking place but the fountain which had been dry the previous evening was now erupting with water and sending magnificent plumes high into the blue sky.  We sat at the same table and had San Miguel and wine and olives and we reflected on a busy day of rewarding sightseeing and some amazing places.

The meal the previous evening had been satisfactory but we had no plans to return there because we had seen a little place around the corner from the hotel where there were some pavement tables where it was warm and sheltered enough to dine out in the street and we had a pleasant, simple and unhurried meal before returning to the Plaza Mayor for a final drink.  As the light began to fade we made a summary of what had been an excellent day in a Spanish city, which only a few years ago I would never have remotely thought of visiting.

The next day we had a final few hours in Mérida.

The reason that the modern city has so many Roman antiquities is that it was a very important place in the Empire. The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 B.C. with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance being overcome in the north-west in the same year. The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a framework of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges and Iberian cities including Mérida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.

The economy flourished under Roman rule and, along with North Africa, served as a bread basket for the Roman market and as well as grain it provided gold, wool, olive oil, and wine.  Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use even today and much of daily life consisted of agricultural work under which the region flourished, especially the cultivation of grapes and olives.

Silver mining within the Guadalquivir River valley became an integral part of the Iberian economy and some of the Empire’s most important metal resources were in Hispania where gold, iron, tin, copper and lead were also all mined in abundance and shipped back to Rome.

Spain also has historical and political significance for the Roman Empire because it was the birthplace of the Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Theodosius I and the philosopher Seneca.  Luckily, when the Roman Empire fell, it didn’t create such a major crisis or havoc in Spain as it did in other western countries like Gaul, Germany and Britain and thus much of its essential infrastructure remained intact.

Next to the river there were some excavations but to be honest we found these rather disappointing so we hurried through them and walked to the water and walked along a pedestrian walkway to the stout, reliable and weather-beaten Roman bridge and then back towards the main square.

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We were looking now for the Temple of Diana and we found it tucked away behind the main shopping street and next to a small museum.  The Temple was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. and remains well preserved mostly because in the sixteenth century some local big-wig built a palace inside the rectangular ring of Corinthian columns. There has been some recent debate about removing the palace structure but as this is over five-hundred years old as well the archaeologists and the authorities have agreed that it should stay.

We were over an hour ahead of schedule so we had a last drink in the main square while we waited for the car to be returned from the out of town car park and when it was there we went back to the hotel and checked out.

We drove out of the city through fields of golden corn and verges decorated with scarlet poppies.  We were heading for Trujillo.

Poppies in Extremadura

Travels In Spain, The Romans in Merida

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Extremadura is often considered to be the traditional boundary between Moorish and Christian Spain and Mérida itself has previously passed between Christian, Moorish, and even Portuguese control.  Because of its rich and busy history it was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1993.

To begin with we walked along a busy main road towards the crimson and saffron Plaza de Torres and near here was our first excavation to visit.  We bought an all sites pass for €12 each which seemed like a good deal and went inside to see the remains of a house that had been the home and office of an important Roman citizen in the first century A.D. and after that we visited an adjacent ancient Roman burial site and cemetery.

It was getting hot as we made our way to one of the main attractions, the amphitheatre and theatre and as we walked we were aware of hundreds of school children arriving in buses, far too many for this to be a normal school trip occasion and we wondered what they were all doing here.  We found the entrance to the site and all was revealed because today, and all week, there was a production of the Greco-Latin Youth Festival Theatre which meant that the theatre was in use and access was restricted.  I was annoyed about that and wondered just how restricted?

First we went to the amphitheatre which was completed in 8 B.C. and was able to seat up to fifteen thousand spectators within the elliptical stadium.  The previous month we had visited the amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia which accommodated twenty-thousand spectators but this seemed just as huge.  It wasn’t in such good shape however because a lot of it has been subsequently dismantled for alternative building projects.  If UNESCO had been around two thousand years ago then it would still be there.

Mérida was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of Lusitania so this was a very important place and the amphitheatre here would have been on the main gladiatorial and events circuit of the Empire and it continued to be used for this purpose until the fourth century.  Today, on account of its past Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

The site was beginning to fill up now with the school children and the volume levels inside the Roman Theatre were beginning to build so we left the amphitheatre and walked the short distance to the theatre next door.

Two thousand years ago this would have been a massive entertainment centre for the city and I suppose that we were lucky because today we were going to see it being used for its original purpose.  Although we couldn’t get down close to the stage area and the columns and the statues and the central seating area was full of chattering and excitable school children we could make our way around the upper circle and visitors were invited to stay awhile and watch the production.  We sat and watched for about half an hour but it was a three hour show and struggling with interpretation we finally gave up, left and moved on.

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After a drink and the inevitable dish of olives we made our way to the Roman Circus which would have been quite a way outside the walls of the Roman city.

Although we have now visited a number of Roman amphitheatres we had never been to a racetrack before and this place was stunning in its layout and sheer size.  There is nothing left of the grandstands now because these have all been dismantled and the stone used elsewhere but it was easy to imagine what it might have looked like simply by thinking about the Charlton Heston film ‘Ben Hur’ because it was in such a place as this that the Roman chariot races took place.

Inside what was the arena it was peaceful and quiet with a carpet of rough grass and wild meadow flowers but with a little imagination it was possible to imagine what a place like this would have been like on race days when there was capacity for thirty-thousand boozed-up rowdy spectators!

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Leaving the circus we walked along another busy road looking for the site of the aqueducts because although they are not as spectacular or as complete as that of Segovia there are approximately five miles of aqueduct running into and through the city.  We found the largest and most complete, the Aqueducto los Milagros in a green park on the edge of the town with each towering arch topped with an untidy nest of twigs and a family of Storks.

We had been walking for four hours now so this was a good time to find somewhere for lunch.  It proved surprisingly difficult to find something suitable and one thing that Mérida did seem to lack was a good selection of street cafés and bars.  The ones we liked were full and those that weren’t didn’t tempt us.

Eventually, after we had passed underneath Trajan’s Arch on the way back to the centre we came across a place in a side alley off the main shopping street where, partly our own fault it has to be said, although we had a nice salad, we paid a hefty price for it and then sulked for half an hour or so afterwards.  It seemed that we had paid the full price for a menu of the day even though we hadn’t chosen or eaten all of the courses. Another language and interpretation issue and a lesson learned!

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Travels in Spain, Mérida in Extremadura

Extremadura

“Sometimes the Spaniard will resent your attempts to use it (Spanish).  Sometimes he believes it to physically impossible for an alien to understand it.  Sometimes he cannot actually convince himself that you are speaking it…”   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Mérida is the capital city of the Autonomous region of Extremadura and is set in the heart of the Province of Badajoz. One of the most important Roman capital cities at the height of Roman occupation of Spain, the city today has one of the best preserved collections of Roman monuments anywhere in Europe and UNESCO World Heritage status.

This is why we were here of course but right now all we wanted was a table in the early evening sunshine, a drink and a plate of olives so after we had approved the room we left immediately to the Plaza Mayor right outside the front door.

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls running and skipping.  In the centre was an extravagant fountain and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into shadows and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.  At each corner was a covered café so we choose one in the sun, next to some boys playing football who were using palm trees for goalposts and sat and simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

What was noticeable was how well behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together before dinner.

As the afternoon slipped effortlessly into early evening we remembered that we needed some supplies for the room because being a five star hotel there was no way we were going anywhere near the mini-bar and its inflated prices.  There were no shops around the square so we finished our drinks and joined the crowds of people walking through the main shopping street of the city.  There were all kinds of shops but no mini-markets and we walked until we came to a busy main road where we were certain there would be a shop because we had seen people with carrier bags, but being unsure which we to turn, left or right, it was time to ask directions.

There was a man on the pavement just watching the world go by and minding his own business so I asked him a straightforward one word question, “¿Supermercardo?”  He took a step backwards as though he thought I might have an infectious disease and his face went curiously blank.  He looked around for help but there was none so he shrugged his shoulders and rattled off some words in Spanish at machine gun speed which I took to mean that he wasn’t sure, he was uncomfortable being accosted by foreigners and that we should leave him alone.

We decided to walk on and within twenty metres we were outside a huge ‘Discount Supermercardo’ and I don’t think I could have been so unintelligible that he couldn’t have understood that this was exactly what we were looking for.

It was getting late by the time we had finished off a bottle of Rioja and were ready to go out so being unfamiliar with the city we didn’t walk too far and found a restaurant close by that seemed just about right.  Actually it turned out not to be very thrilling and there was an elderly English couple in there complaining about the food and the service and although I wouldn’t have gone back it really wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed a Extremadura lamb stew and Kim a beef steak.  We declared it delicious, there were no complaints from us!

One of the reasons that I like Spain so much is its diversity, no region, city or town is much like another, each has a special unique quality and Extremadura and Mérida was proving to be no exception.

Extremadura Map

Even in Spain Extremadura has a very distinct character, in the summer it is sun-baked and unforgiving, in the winter it is cold and unrelenting.  Much of the land has no agricultural value, there are no industrial centres.  Bordering to its west is Portugal and it is and has long been the poorest region in Spain, in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elsewhere in search of better fortune.

Geographically it is the fifth largest of the Autonomous Communities of Spain but it has the lowest population density of all.  There is no international airport and no AVE high speed train link, it is the least visited region in Spain by tourists.  Mérida is the smallest of all seventeen capitals of the Autonomous Communities.

As we left the restaurant we strolled through the Plaza Mayor which was still vibrant and busy. As so often in Spain, there was a sense simultaneously of gravitas, fragile grandeur and impending festivity. Spanish people really know how to colonise urban space, and at all hours. We liked Mérida.

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Travels in Spain, Cáceres in Extremadura

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“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”, Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

As we walked into the city we passed into the old town through one of the eight-hundred year old Moorish 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.  Precisely 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 terrorising the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Islam to Christianity then he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted on the spot (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 European capital of Culture. (Ultimately not successful as it happens – 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 to 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 is 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.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

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 Caceres 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 thirty miles to the 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 necessary correction.

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 even 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.

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Travels in Spain, Cuevas El Aguila in The Gredos Mountains

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“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”  Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

After a perfect undisturbed sleep in the quiet village we woke to an immaculate blue sky and wide sweeping views over the expansive countryside and the surprisingly green fields sweeping down towards the city of Talavera de la Reina and beyond that to the Montes de Toledo rising slowly through the dispersing cloud.

Breakfast wasn’t served until half past nine so we had time for a walk into town where we were expecting to see a market in the Plaza de Torres but we must have got our days mixed up because the Plaza was quite empty.  We wandered lost around the streets that were beginning to stir into life and saw the same old men who had been there the previous night and clearly have nothing more to do all day in this tiny place than hang around the main square.

Perhaps they don’t even go to bed.

Breakfast at the El Cerro was excellent, just a simple affair of Iberian ham, Manchego cheese and toast with olive oil and tomato but it was quite perfect.  One of the hotel staff was very friendly and spoke good English and was interested in our travels around Spain and intrigued that we picked out of the way places like Pedro Bernardo instead of the well known tourist towns.  He told us that he wanted to move to Madrid and we assured him that we liked it better this way.

We told him that we were driving to Cáceres and he became quite insistent that we should take a short detour from our route and visit the Cuevas El Aguila, the Eagle Caves, in the foothills of the Gredos mountains but we had a long way to go and were not sure if we liked caves enough to go to the trouble.  When we checked out a few minutes later he reminded us again to make the visit and assured us that we would not be disappointed so it seemed rude not to go so we set off in the direction that he carefully marked on our map.

I liked Pedro-Bernardo, it was the sort of place that could go on a ‘must go back to one day’ list but I won’t go back because I fear that if I did it will have changed dramatically from how I remember it.  I’ll just keep it locked away in my memory.

The drive out took us to the  Sierra de Gredos which is a mountain range in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, located between Ávila, Cáceres, Madrid and Toledo and has been declared a regional park.  We were on the road to Cáceres anyway so it wouldn’t delay us too long to visit the caves and when they began to be signposted we turned off and took a succession of minor roads to the attraction.

We followed a quiet rural road, a track really to a large but empty car park and parked close to the entrance and still not convinced that this was a good idea made our way to the kiosk and paid €7 each entrance and waited five minutes for the guide to take us inside.

As soon as he appeared and escorted us underground we were immediately glad that we made the detour because this was an awesome underground cavern, over twelve million years old and inside a great hall of six thousand square yards and over half a mile of pathway to walk through the great stalactites and stalagmites that rose and fell in majestic multi-coloured columns throughout the cave.

The guide apologised several times for being unable to speak English but we reassured him that this didn’t matter because so much of his narrative would have been superfluous anyway and we could imagine for ourselves what he was telling us.  As usual in underground caves he kept pointing out natural sculptures that, with a lot of imagination, had a resemblance to familiar icons – the Madonna and Child (several times), Bulls, Matadors and famous Spanish Kings and Queens.

The temperature inside the cave is constant throughout the year, with an average of twenty degrees celsius and it was this that led to its discovery in 1963 by a group of children who noticed water vapour escaping through a hole in the ground caused by the difference in temperature of the caves and the outside.  They crawled inside to investigate and discovered the Aladdin’s cave with all of its natural treasure and a year later the owners of the land, obviously sensing that there was gold in them thar hills, made it accessible and opened it to the public.

It took about forty minutes to complete the circuit of concrete paths and various viewing platforms and when we emerged back into the daylight we were so pleased that we had taken the advice to visit because this was one place that was certainly worth a detour.

The original plan was to drive to Extremadura and stop at the town of Trujillo but the combination of the later than usual breakfast and the unscheduled visit to the caves meant that our original timings now had to be reworked so we decided to miss Trujillo and drive the hundred and twenty miles straight to Cáceres instead.

The drive was effortless along a delightfully spacious motorway as we drove in a relentless straight line across Spain’s Central Plateau at some point crossing into the Province of Extremadura, the fifth largest in Spain.

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Other Cave Stories:

Drogarati Cave and Blue Lagoon, Kephalonia

Altimira Caves, Spain

Blue Lagoon, Capri

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Lanzarote – Cueva de los Verde

Cave Houses of Guadix

Llechwedd Slate Caverns, Wales

 

Click on an image to view the gallery…

Travels in Spain, The Romans

Merida Roman Theatre

Segobriga was a surprise discovery and we enjoyed our afternoon at the archaeological site.

There are many more Roman remains in Spain, these pictures are from the city of Mérida in Extremadura.

Emerita Augusta  was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of the Empire in Lusitania and the most important Roman city in Iberia.

Today, on account of its past, Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

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 the deserts of North 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.

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