Tag Archives: Madrid

Travels in Italy, A Walk Around San Marino

San Marino View

The bus left more or less on time and drove inland away from Rimini and towards the three peaks of Mount Titano part of the Appenine Mountain Range and each with a fortress built on the very top.

We watched for the state border but with no passport controls we passed through and barely noticed and then the bus began to climb and the road weaved this way and that in extravagant hairpin bends and loops and the engine and the gearbox began to groan and complain.

It was quite a climb because at 1076 feet above sea level and about half way to the top of the mountain the city of San Marino is the sixth highest capital in Europe after Andorra la Vella (3356), Madrid (2188), Bern (1778), Sarajevo (1699) and Vaduz (1403); it is also the fifth highest city in the Italian peninsular.

As it happens I have been to Vaduz, in 2007 on a visit to Liechtenstein and it was probably one of the worst cities that I have been to in Europe, drab and featureless it is on my list of recommended places to avoid and I hoped that San Marino wouldn’t be a similar disappointment.

Eventually the bus wheezed to a halt in a coach park and immediately there were grand sweeping views across the mountains towards the plains and eventually the Adriatic Sea to the east.  It was breath-taking and wonderful.

San Marino Traffic Control

But we were at the bottom of the city and now there was a long walk to the very top, another fifteen hundred feet or so above us and this involved negotiating an awful lot of steps so we set off and entered the city and into a world of mazy streets and secret alleyways that all offered alternative routes to the top.

My immediate impression was that this was a very well maintained city, spotlessly clean with immaculate flower borders and neatly trimmed lawns, quite unlike anything that we had seen so far.  It was a Disney EPCOT World Showcase sort of place where the emphasis was firmly on entertaining the tourists.

It reminded me of Carcassonne, Rocamador and Mont St Michel in France where there is an obvious disconnection with the real world, passing into a place such as this is like temporarily leaving the real world and the route to the top took us past rows and rows of well-stocked tourist shops, restaurants and duty free boutiques.  Thankfully not like Vaduz at all.

San Marino Garibaldi

Inevitably we passed through Piazza Garibaldi and found the statue that I was looking for to add to my collection of photographs and I stopped for a while to reflect on it.  In almost every city and town in Italy there is a statue of Garibaldi to commemorate the Unification of Italy into one single State but here in San Marino there is a statue of Garibaldi to commemorate not being included in that unification.

After Garibaldi we passed through the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall of the city with the entrance protected by three members of the Fortress Guard Corps in their bottle green jackets and scarlet trousers and although I know very little about fashion I thought this to be a rather odd combination of colours and then the Basilica of the Saint designed and built, starting in 1826, by Antonio Serra, an architect from Bologna.

San Marino Army Guard

Despite these worthy distractions it didn’t take long to reach the top, well, we didn’t actually reach the top as we declined the visit to the battlements because there was an entrance fee involved so returned instead more or less the way that we had come and found a bar for a late lunch time drink.

We wondered if we should stay a while longer but that would only mean walking the same circuit again so at mid-afternoon we made our way back to the coach park and after another frantic tussle to board the bus returned directly to Rimini and walked back to our hotel along the sea-front which was continuing to be dismantled.

They seemed to be in a rush to complete the job but someone told us that a storm was forecast for the next day and they urgently needed to get things stored safely away.  We ignored the news about the storm and went to the same place for evening meal, we didn’t want to spoil our holiday.  Nine and a half miles walked today.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

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Travels in Spain, Cervantes and Alcalá de Henares

Cervantes Alcala de Henares

Modern day Alcalá de Henares is a busy sprawling industrial suburb of Madrid but at its heart is the world’s first planned University City founded in 1293 by King Sancho IV of Castile.  It was the original model for the Civitas Dei (City of God), the ideal Christian community that Spanish missionaries exported to the New World and it also served as a model for universities in all of Europe and elsewhere.

Alcalá de Henares is Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale but I wouldn’t have guessed this as we drove towards the city centre through grimy streets, clogged with growling traffic and unattractive high rise apartment blocks and small industrial units lining the road.

The City is however packed to overflowing with two thousand years of history.  It was settled by Romans, Moors and the reconquering Christians.  As a former royal residence it is where Columbus met Queen Isabella for the first time.   In 1547, it was the birthplace of Spain’s greatest literary genius, Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.  It achieved UNESCO world heritage status in 1998 thanks to this venerated university which has produced a steady supply of saints and generations of powerful Spanish Catholic bishops.

Don Quixote Alcala de Henares

It was almost lunch time now and having missed breakfast judged it about time to eat so we found a place in the sun and asked for a menu.  When I said it was almost lunch time I meant that it was about eleven-thirty and this proved to be a bit of a problem because most of the things we selected weren’t quite ready so we tried again and most of the things on our second selection attempt weren’t ready either so we settled for a bocadillo and a glass of beer before setting off into the centre of the city for sightseeing.

The pavement bar with the seriously restricted menu options was close to the centre of Alcalá de Henares so after our short stop we walked through the red brick city to the expansive tree lined Plaza Mayor, here called the Plaza de Cervantes.

Cervantes wrote a dozen or so major works and his most famous is Don Quixote, a sprawling epic novel regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age.  It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses, and  “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants.

don-quixote-book-cover

As one of the earliest works of modern western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.

In 2002 a panel of one hundred leading world authors declared Don Quixote to be the best work of fiction ever written, ahead even of works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and Bryson.  Cervantes has also been credited with shaping modern literary style, and Don Quixote has been acclaimed as “the first great novel of world literature”.

Since publication in 1605 it is reputed to be the most widely read and translated book on the planet after the Bible. I tried to read it once but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we walked around I resolved to have another attempt upon returning home.

So that is the two most translated books in the history of the World that I haven’t read! The third is ‘Listen to God and Live Forever’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and not surprisingly I haven’t read that either.

The Plaza is a supremely handsome square surrounded by tall University buildings decorated with untidy Stork nests. There was a lot of activity in the nests today because the population of these birds in Spain is rising, from six thousand seven hundred pairs thirty years ago to an estimated thirty-five thousand pairs today.  In fact there are so many White Storks in Spain that it is now second only to Poland who with fifty thousand birds has always traditionally been the country with the most pairs of the birds in Europe.

Cervantes

On three sides there are medieval colonnaded arcades and in the centre on a tall column stands a statue of Cervantes with quill held delicately in his right hand as a Conquistador might hold a sword, as though poised to begin writing a masterpiece.  We walked through and around it and then explored the University district before returning to the main shopping street the Calle Mayo

All along the Calle Mayor there were shopping distractions for Kim to investigate so while she looked at shoes and cakes and sparkly things I made my way to the end of the street to the birthplace museum of Cervantes and waited in the company of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for her to catch me up.

I had a mind to visit the museum especially as the web site said that admission was free but at the entrance I was greeted by an attendant who explained that there was a charge of €10 which I judged to be rather expensive for just a handful of rooms so I purchased a couple of postcards and left.  Maybe I made the right decision because I read subsequently that there is some suggestion that this is not his birthplace at all and the house was built some time after Cervantes birth, an accusation that is strenuously denied by the museum of course.

Cervantes House Alcala de Henares

Travels in Spain, A Mountain Pass and a Fuel Crisis

San Ildefonso o la granja 3

“The Sierra, like the moon, had two distinct faces: the north one aloof and cold in its shadow, a place of green thickets and alpine silence, whilst to the south the mountain was just a raw burnt rock, the cliffs stripped bare by the sun.”  – Laurie Lee

After we had walked through the gardens we reluctantly left the Palace of San Ildefonso o La Granja and then the town and we drove south again towards our next intended destination, the fortress town of Manzanares El Real where we planned to see our final castle.

To get there we had to drive across the top of the mountain and shortly after leaving San Ildefonso we began to steadily climb the northern face of the peaks.  Eventually we reached the top at a mountain pass called Puerto de Navacerrada, the gateway to the long descent on the southern side down towards Madrid.  We were right on schedule but at the top were some policemen who pulled us to a stop and then explained that the road was closed and that we would have to take a detour back down the northern side of the mountain.

Guardia Civil

At least we assumed that was what they were saying because to be honest I didn’t understand Spanish police instructions terribly well and they weren’t especially good at understanding English tourists who couldn’t understand Spanish police instructions.  I said “Madrid, Madrid, Madridon the basis if you say something over and over and get louder each time a foreigner might eventually understand and this seemed to work on this occasion because eventually he pointed again to the alternative road that we would have to take and smiled as we set off.

This was going to be a problem because it was going to add twenty miles to the journey and there certainly wasn’t enough fuel in the tank for that.  Luckily it was all down-hill from here so I used the throttle as little as possible and freewheeled down the safe sections.  I knew that there was enough fuel left in the tank but as we went down the really steep bits the needle on the fuel gauge rushed headlong into the red zone and even though I knew this was because of uneven fuel distribution in the tank the situation certainly brought me out in a hot sweat.

There was no sign of a filling station and I began to grow concerned but then we reached the pretty town of Rascafria sitting in a narrow valley surrounded by mountain peaks and after stopping and asking for directions at a restaurant we thankfully found a garage and I put an extra couple of squirts in more than we really needed just to be on the safe side.

Rascafia

After I had calmed down we relaxed a little at a café pavement table and then walked through the streets of the charming little mountain town that provided a pleasant contrast to the tourist cities of Toledo and Segovia.  It was as though we had turned full circle and were back in Belmonte and then we resumed our journey.  There was a safe route but feeling confident once more we choose to try the mountain passes again this time using the eastern route and we hoped that this wouldn’t be blocked and closed as well.

We climbed again, quite quickly this time and reached a mountain top plateau surrounded by snowy peaks and with uninterrupted views into the distance.  We were only twenty miles from Madrid but we were practically alone in a lonely natural wilderness. What a day this was to be in this seemingly remote part of Spain, a glorious blue sky, snow on the mountains, early days of Spring and absolutely no one to share it with.

Top Of The World View

We crossed the top and thankfully there were no Guardia Civil to send us back and after we passed through the town of Miraflores de la Sierra the road dropped quickly down to the shoreline of a shimmering blue reservoir and the town of Manzanares El Real.

We arrived and parked in a dusty car park directly below the huge medieval castle sat on an outcrop of rock that we had driven here to see.  Leaving the car we walked through the languid square where little afternoon groups of men in flat caps and berets were congregating and debating the big issues of the day and women were shopping in the small stores around the perimeter.  They don’t get many English tourists here, especially in March so I think one or two of them were surprised to see us as they went about their daily routine.

We found the entrance to the castle and paid our €4 fee and then made our way inside through the main gate.  The castle has been restored of course, most recently in the 1970s, because only a few years ago it wasn’t in very good shape at all and I guessed that what we were seeing was what Belmonte castle will look like when it too has been restored.

Inside the main building we followed a route through a succession of restored rooms with displays of armour and medieval bric-a-brac of dubious originality and then out onto the battlements and turrets at the very top of the building.  To the north there were the snowy peaks of the mountains and to the south a stunning view over the Embalse de Santillana which is a recent addition to the landscape of course so wouldn’t have been there in the middle-ages for the occupants of the castle to enjoy and what made it all the more satisfying is that today we had the castle and the views all to ourselves.

After a long day it was getting late so we left now and continued to our final destination, Alcalá de Henares.

Manzanares el Real

Travels in Spain, The Aqueduct of Segovia

Segovia 08

“Here were churches, castles, and medieval walls standing sharp in the evening light, but all dwarfed by that extraordinary phenomenon of masonry, the Roman aqueduct, which overshadowed the whole…’The Aqueduct’, said the farmer, pointing with his whip, in case by chance I had failed to notice it.” – Laurie Lee

If the Alcázar isn’t enough for one city the Aqueduct is the most recognised and famous historical symbol of Segovia. It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans to bring water from the Río Frío about twelve miles away and requiring an elevated section in its final half mile from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town.

This is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is sixty feet high and constructed with over twenty thousand large, rough-hewn granite blocks which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.

We liked the Aqueduct and looked all round it from every possible angle, it is one of those structures that make you appreciate just how brilliant the Romans were.  I never tire of visiting these ancient structures, I feel privileged to able to enjoy them and the sense of wonderment is constant no matter how many I see.

Aqueduct of Segovia

Underneath the Aqueduct in the Plaza of Azoguejo at the tourist information office we checked timetables and made plans for our railway journey to Madrid in the morning and then retraced our steps back to the Plaza Mayor where in the mid to late afternoon sunshine we sat and had another beer and another plate of tapas at a third different bar.

There was only one more thing to do in Segovia so after the refreshment break we went to the Cathedral to finish off the day.  The building was completed in 1577 and is regarded as the World’s last great Gothic Cathedral.  There was an admission charge again, which seems to becoming quite normal, so we paid the €3 and then entered what I suggest is quite possibly the coldest cathedral in Spain and probably all of Europe.

Segovia 04

We were inappropriately dressed for sub-zero temperatures and although the cathedral was well worth the admission charge it was too cold to enjoy it so we sprinted around the naves and the chapels with rather indecent haste and were glad to come about again into the sunshine with only seconds to go before fatal hypothermia set in.

Later in the agreeable afternoon sunshine we needed to warm up so we ambled around the pretty little streets, bought some wine from a little shop near to the hotel and then went back to the room.  The Sercotel Infanta Isabel was a good hotel in an excellent location and we enjoyed the setting and the atmosphere as we drank our bottle of local Spanish wine and thoughts turned to dining arrangements for the evening.

Before eating we visited the Aqueduct to take pictures in the fading light of dusk and later we ate at the restaurant that Kim had shown a preference for the previous evening but I had overruled and it turned out to be an excellent choice with a very tasty selection of food.

It had been a long day and we had done a lot of walking so as we were planning to go to Madrid in the morning we finished early and went back to the hotel for an early night and to consult the guide books to make last-minute plans for tomorrow.

Segovia 03

So far this week everything had gone mostly to plan and the itinerary that I planned meticulously beforehand had worked well so something just had to go awry and today it went spectacularly wrong.

It was quite cool at six o’clock in the morning as we walked to the bus station next to the Aqueduct and caught the no. 11 bus that would take us to the railway station three miles out of town in time to catch the seven-twenty train that would whisk us to the city in thirty-five minutes in time for a traditional Madrileño breakfast.

There were ten minutes to spare and only one person in front of us at the ticket desk so we didn’t wait long to step up and request two return tickets.  The clerk looked at the computer screen and made twitching expressions and tutting noises and I began to fear the worst.  After a minute or so he explained that there were no seats on the train and the next one wasn’t for two hours.  Oh Bugger!  This was something that I hadn’t made allowances for in the plan.

I had naturally assumed that train travel would be the same as in the United Kingdom where you turn up at any main line railway station, they sell you a ticket whether there is a seat or not (usually not) and you travel to London standing in the corridor next to the loos.  Sadly this isn’t an option on the AVE bullet train so we could do no other than to go back to Segovia on the same bus that had just brought us here.  The driver seemed a bit surprised because I suspect not many people do a round trip to the railway station for no apparent reason at seven o’clock in the morning.

So we had a second unexpected day in Segovia and as we had done all of the main things to do yesterday we wondered just what we would do – so we did the same things again today but a little more slowly.

Segovia

Travels in Spain, Toledo The City of Religion and Steel

Toledo Postcard

“A castle stands sentinel across the stream; harsh grey hills are all about: the setting of Toledo is all abrasion, nothing soft, nothing hospitable, nothing amusing.  This is the Spanish character at its most intractable” –  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

The car park might have been conveniently right on the edge of the City but to get there involved a rather strenuous climb to reach it because old Toledo is built on the top of a craggy outcrop of rock which sits like a Stork’s nest that in the Middle Ages made it impregnable to hostile forces.

The whole city is a sort of natural castle with a moat, the Tagus River, running in a looping gorge around three sides of it. The only way an enemy could take it was to attack the north side and that was difficult because not surprisingly that was the most strongly fortified part of the city walls.  The Tagus, by the way, is the fourth longest river in Western Europe and the most important in Iberia and from Toledo it flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon in Portugal.

Toledo has always been one of the most important cities in Spain and for many years actually contested the status of capital with nearby Madrid and was in fact the principal city until 1560.  But Madrid gradually came to prominence under the Hapsburg Monarchy and Phillip II moved his court there and made it his Capital in 1561.

Toledo compensated for this by reinventing itself as the principal religious city in the country and today remains the seat of the Primate of all Spain.  To walk around the cramped streets of Toledo and browse the souvenir shops is the closest you can get in Spain to being in Rome as replicas of the Saints stare out from every shop window.

This to is the city of El Greco, the greatest artist of his age and his religious paintings and his interpretations of the scriptures that represent Toledo as a brooding cauldron of spiritual energy are never far away.

Spain - Historic City of Toledo 1

At the end of the climb from the car park we entered the city at the busy main square, the Plaza Zocodover, which was surrounded by tall imperial buildings and confusing little streets leaking away into deep shadows in all directions.  Without a map we were rather confused and disorientated because this was easily the biggest place we had visited so far.

After a while we established our bearings and walked to the Alcázar, which was closed today for improvements and a planned new museum but being at the top of the city did have spectacular views over the river and the lands stretched out to the south.  We were still unsure of our location and after an aborted refreshment stop at a bar with a broken loo and unacceptably loud music we threaded our way into the maze of narrow streets and walking in the general direction of the Cathedral.

After lunch we walked to the Cathedral and paid the entrance fee of €7, which turned out to be excellent value compared to the €2 to get into the tiny church in Belmonte.  It is one of the biggest cathedrals in the world and the interior is not at all austere as some cathedrals can be.  Slightly annoying was the fact that for those who didn’t want to pay the admission charge they could enter by a side door and although they couldn’t walk around freely and see all of the internal rooms and the especially impressive choir area, they could certainly see and appreciate the magnificent structure for free.

Acuarela Original

Outside the Cathedral we found a tourist information office and now we had a map the city was suddenly much easier to negotiate.  In the past Toledo had changed hands many times and it was renowned for its diversity and religious toleration and we visited a synagogue with, unusually for a synagogue, free admission and then after walking through a warren of mazy streets came out on the other side overlooking the modern town to the north.

Every available square metre of this rocky outcrop has been built upon and the buildings are heaped together in a random and haphazard way with cobbled lanes revealing new delights at every twist and turn.  We negotiated the narrow confusing streets and the surprises back towards the Plaza Zocodover and as we did so passed through an area of artisans workshops where metal workers were making swords and knives and displaying them in the windows.

IMG_0161a

Traditionally Toledo (like Sheffield in England) is famous for its production of steel and especially of swords and the city is still a centre for the manufacture of knives and other steel implements designed for stabbing people.  In the tourist shops slashing swords and dangerous daggers compete for selling space with the holy Saints and religious icons.

For soldiers and adventurers in past times a sword made of Toledo steel was a must have item because the quality of the steel and the skill of the blacksmith combined to make an exceptionally strong and perfect lethal weapon.  In literature and film the Three Musketeers had Toledo steel swords and so did Don Diego de la Vega who was more famously known as Zorro.

The manufacturing process was a carefully guarded secret and to make such an exceptional weapon they had to select the very best raw materials and then follow a complicated technical process to achieve the right balance between hard and soft steel forged at a temperature of 1454º Fahrenheit for exactly the right length of time and followed by a critical cooling and shaping process.  So complicated was this whole procedure and so perfect was the finished weapon that to achieve this level of precision a master craftsman would typically only be able to make two or three blades in a year.

Little wonder that they were so expensive!

Toledo Steel

Travels in Spain, The Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor Siguenza

We enjoyed our brief stay in Almagro and especially our time spent in the Plaza Mayor and as we had a final glass of Rioja on the balcony of the hotel we began to compile a list of our favourites.  The more places we visit the more difficult this becomes so we have now extended this list from five to ten and introduced two categories – cities and towns.

The Plaza Mayor is arguably the most important part of a Spanish town or city and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares but use them in an entirely different way – all day drinking, littering and anti-social behaviour.

In Spain the Plaza Mayor is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by.  This is the beating heart of a Spanish community and when we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the town and its people.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Spain

In the search for real Spain (not the coasts and the Costas), in the past five years, we have visited and enjoyed dozens of Plaza Mayors; Madrid, the largest, Salamanca, the second largest, Toledo, next to its towering cathedral and the tiled Plaza de España in Seville.  We liked them all and we began now to compile a list with a view to choosing our favourites.

We considered Ávila,  Mérida and ValladolidCáceres and Santiago de CompostellaOviedo and León  but after a lively debate weighing up the pros and cons and putting forward the case for each one in turn we finally agreed on the top five in each category but could not reach consensus on the actual order.

First the cities:  Segovia in Castilla y Leon because of the Cathedral and the architecture and the little streets running away from it like spokes from a wheel, Trujillo in Extremadura, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, its grand palaces and dusty, sunburnt aura and then Salamanca with its grand baroque architecture and after that Alcala de Henara and the Plaza de Cervantes with its statues and gardens and grandly colonnaded perimeter and then we would simply have to add Palencia  because of its unspoilt charm and the timeless quality of the buildings and architecture – a real gem!

Vic Catalonia Spain

And so to the towns: the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo, reeking of the Spanish Peninsula War in every crack and crevice, Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and Siguenza with its stone simplicity, cobbled alleys, sharp stairways, deep arches, shady courtyards and stone buttresses leaning across the street and leaving barely a single shaft of sunlight and which was the probably the closest yet that I have been looking for in Spain.  Almagro with its stone colonnaded arches and Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of green and fully glazed in a central European style which makes this place unique in all of Spain.  Finally Tembleque which we visited on a dreary overcast day but despite that there was no ignoring the quality of its fine Plaza.

That was a difficult debate and lasted as long as long as the bottle of wine and two dishes of olives but once we had finished we drained our glasses and thought about moving on in the morning.

Chinchon

Travels in Spain, The Circumnavigation of Madrid

Map Route

For the month of March I invite you to join me on an epic journey to Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y Leon as we set out to circumnavigate the city of Madrid.

The journey will begin in Madrid and the plan is to more or less follow the Ruta de Don Quixote south through the bullfighting town of Chinchón to the town of Belmonte and a visit to the castle of El Cid.  Then to Cuenca, Almagro and Toledo stopping on route to visit a Roman City and the Windmills of Consuegra.

From Toledo, north to the walled city of Ávila and then to Segovia and finally to Alcalá de Henares, the birth place of Cervantes via a Royal Palace and a Medieval Castle.

I hope you will accept my invitation to come along…