Have Bag, Will Travel
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“When you get to know it (Madrid), it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, month in and month out the finest climate” – Ernest Hemingway
A nice quote but I am not so sure that even Hemingway was qualified to make this judgment. Outside of Madrid he visited Pamplona in Navarre and Malaga and Ronda in Andalusia in pursuit of the bullfight but that seems to be about it. He might have visited Segovia and Toledo near Madrid but this is not certain. I have visited more cities in Spain than Ernest Hemingway but there again he didn’t have the benefit of cheap Ryanair flights.
After the unpleasant experience of the bocadillo de calamares and with the taste difficult to shift even with a beer mouthwash we quickly left the restaurant and returned to the streets and from the Plaza de la Puerto Del Sol walked south east towards Atocha train station because we wanted to check the timetable for an intended visit the following day to the nearby city of Segovia.
Well, that was a waste of time. The man at the information desk had even less of a grasp of English than I have Spanish, which to be fair is restricted to ordering beer and wine, but we did somehow manage to understand that trains to Segovia do not leave from Atocha but from an alternative station on the opposite side of the city. He gave us some instructions on how to get there but it was an awful long way away and we had no intention of trying to walk there right now so it would have to wait.
Instead, we walked now to the Parque de el Retiro, which is a huge public park full of tall deciduous trees in their full spring glory and with paths that meandered meaninglessly below them deep in the shadows which gave welcome relief from the burning sun. It used to be a Royal park reserved for the exclusive use of the King and his pals but it now belongs to the city so any riff-raff can go in and along with half of Madrid it would have been possible to spend an entire day in there alone.
We wandered aimlessly past the monument to Alfonso XII adjacent to a large lake and the Palacio de Velasquez and then to the Palacio de Cristal, a sort of giant greenhouse modelled on the original Crystal Palace in London and open today and host to an unusual sculpture exhibition which I must say made little sense to me but then I also confess that I am the original Philistine when it comes to anything to do with art.
Unless there is nudity involved…
Next to the Park is the World famous art museum Del Prado where there is an entrance fee during the day but free admission after six o’clock for poor people to enjoy the last two hours of the day so we thought we might wait for that and anyway we were hungry so looked for a bar that might serve a dish of tapas or two with a drink.
If we had been able to afford it we might have gone to Restaurante Botín, open since 1725 on a tiny street behind Plaza Mayor which claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world. It is said that it was a favourite of Ernest Hemingway who regularly dined on the house speciality of roast suckling pig washed down with at least four bottles of Rioja. Only four? The front window displays an photograph of the writer and a quote from “The Sun Also Rises” that mentions the restaurant.
The owners of a nearby establishment playfully display a large sign above the door that boasts “HEMINGWAY NEVER ATE HERE.”
According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile Alfonso the Wise visited a tavern near Cádiz and ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty. The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.
We found a bar that suited our budget and just like the king ordered a drink that was served with tapas and then, also like the King, we ordered a second.
So now we wandered back towards the city centre along a street of grand Government buildings, including the Congress of Deputies and back to Plaza de la Puerto Del Sol where we had started our first day in Madrid several hours earlier. There was time for a quick drink at a pavement bar before Richard and I retraced our footsteps back to the Del Prado while the girls chose instead to go the department store El Corte Inglés. Culture is different things to different people and I no longer challenge that.
The free entry at six is so popular that it means that realistically if you want to get in with time to spare it is necessary to start queuing at five and when we arrived just before there was already a long line several yards long and we were a long way back from the entrance next to a grand statue of the painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez where we stood now and waited for fifty minutes or so.
This is the thirteenth most visited art gallery in Europe, first is the Louvre in Paris, second the Vatican Museum in Rome and third the Tate Modern in London.
I began to get concerned about how long it would take to get inside and worried that there might not be enough time to see all around the inside of the museum but at about six the line started to shuffle slowly forward at a pace as though people had shoe laces tied together but at about twenty past six we were inside.
I don’t really know what I was worrying about because to be honest I was completely bored with it all after about half an hour. I enjoyed the exhibition of Goya paintings but after that everything was so samey. Let’s be honest there are only so many pictures of the crucifixion that you want to see or two hundred year old paintings of Charles III and the royal family so after only an hour or so I was happy to leave. I told you that I am a Philistine.
In the early evening Richard was determined to eat at a restaurant recommended by this morning’s tour guide but was quite unable to follow the directions to get there. We wandered aimlessly about for well over an hour or so before chancing across it and to Richard’s disappointment discovering it to be fully booked all evening. We found an alternative place nearby and enjoyed a very nice substitute meal.
We planned to eat early, but ate late and like Hemingway stayed out longer than we had anticipated. We finished our evening at the pavement bar directly outside of our hotel.
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…
Last time out I was in Berlin in Germany and was surprised to find so few grand statues. Not so in Madrid which was my next destination.
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…
More posts about statues…
From Besalu in Catalonia to Chinchon in Castilla-La Mancha about four hundred and fifty miles to the south.
The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies all painted a uniform shade of green called ‘claros’ and below these shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.
It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight as it happens, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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, Madrid” on 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.
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.
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.