Tag Archives: Madrid

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…

Portugal and Spain, So What’s the Difference?

Portugal Postcard Map

Just recently, John* a blogging pal of mine asked me what is the difference between Portugal and Spain.  It reminded me that I once wrote a post on the very subject.  It was quite some while ago and I don’t believe anyone read it so I repeat it here again now.

On 13th February 1668 at the Treaty of Lisbon Spain finally recognised Portugal as a separate and independent state and since that time they have lived peacefully together as reluctant neighbours.

I have visited Portugal a number of times, in 1986 and 1994 to the Algarve, twice in 2008 to Viano de Castelo in the far north and twice again in 2009 to Porto.  I returned again in 2017.  Only on the final visit after a train journey through the centre did it really occur to me that although it shares the Iberian Peninsula with its larger neighbour, Portugal really isn’t Spain and on the flight home I was ashamed of my previous ignorance about the country.

I had always assumed that because of its geography that it must be a lot like Spain with perhaps a few minor differences, sherry and port for example, but I had come to understand that Portugal, its people and its culture and heritage is very, very different indeed.

So what are the differences then I hear you ask?  Observers point out that the Portuguese national character is more sentimental, ironic and mild and these characteristics are often held up as the total opposite of Castilian culture just as melancholic Fado music is in complete contrast to the high drama of the Flamenco.  As different as the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and the novels of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (header picture).

Fado or Flamenco

I have visited both Portugal and Spain several times and there are fundamental differences between the countries and the people that you perhaps wouldn’t expect between two such close neighbours but then again Spain itself is dramatically diverse with the people of Galicia for example having little in common with those from Andalusia or the people of the Basque Country sharing no characteristics with those from Extremadura.  In Portugal the people of the Algarve have little in common with the people of Porto.  Are we English anything like the Welsh?  Why then should Portugal be like Spain?

I feel the difference but cannot adequately explain it but I have found two pieces of work which might help.  These learned scholars have dealt with this question at length find both cultural and geographical factors at work.

Pierre Birot put it this way:

‘…thus, the typical characteristics that so gracefully distinguish the Portuguese soul from its peninsular neighbours, were able to ripen in the shelter of frontiers which are the oldest in Europe. On one side, a proud and exalted people (the Spaniards), ready for all kinds of sacrifice and for all the violent acts that inspire them to be concerned with their dignity; on the other hand a more melancholy and indecisive people (the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity in which one can recognize one of the most precious treasures of our old Europe.’ (Le Portugal; Etude de Geographie Regionale, 1950).

These two countries once ruled much of the World but their Empire building was in a different style, Portugal had Henry the Navigator a methodical explorer seeking out new trade routes with maps and charts and Spain had Conquistadors like Francisco Pizzaro swashbuckling their way through the New World with swords and gunpowder in search of gold.

Explorers

Oliveira Martins, the Dean of Portuguese historians assessed the difference like this:

There is in the Portuguese genius something of the vague and fugitive that contrasts with the Castilian categorical affirmative; there is in the Lusitanian heroism, a nobility that differs from the fury of our neighbours; there is in our writing and our thought a profound or sentimental ironic or meek note…. Always tragic and ardent, Spanish history differs from the Portuguese which is more authentically epic and the differences of history are translated into difference in character.’ (Historia da Civilizacão Ibérica, 1897)

In Medieval times intense Spanish pressure and forced dynastic marriage compelled the Portuguese to follow the Spanish example of expelling the Jews in 1497, a step that deprived Portugal of many of its best merchants, diplomats, mathematicians, geographers, astronomers and cartographers. Feelings of resentment were aggravated by Spanish attempts to absorb Portugal, which temporarily succeeded from 1580-1640 (a period known as ‘The Spanish Captivity’). It was a political mistake that only encouraged a strong and proud reaction that cemented the identity of an independent Portuguese nation, a separate state and culture.

Portugal Tiles Postcard

One major thing that separates them is sherry and port.  Sherry is from Spain and Port is from Portugal as we discovered on a visit to a Port Lodge in 2008.

We learned that under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port and it is produced from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region. The wine produced is fortified with the addition of a Brandy in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting the alcohol content.

So what is the difference…

Simple!  Sherry is fortified after completion of the fermentation process as opposed to port wine which is fortified halfway through the fermentation process

All of these differences and traditional rivalry go some way to explain why there were gasps in the room when Spain and Portugal were drawn together in the same first round group for the 2018 Football world Cup Finals.

Portugal River Douro

* You might like to visit John, I think you might enjoy his blog…

Paol Soren

 

Travels in Spain, The Plains in Postcards

ExtremaduraAvila Postcard MapMadrid PostcardLeon Spain postcard

Travels in Spain, Windmills

Spain WindmillConsuegra Windmills SpainDon Quixote Alcala de Henares

European Capital of Culture 1992 – Madrid

Philip IV and the Palacio Real

There was a definite autumn chill in the air when we went early to breakfast today, early because we were planning to visit the capital of Spain, Madrid.  Kim and I had previously planned to visit in March but due to a misunderstanding about train bookings on my part we didn’t make it.

This time there could be no such problem because there isn’t a train station in Chinchón so we were planning to go by bus.

It was still cool as we waited for the five to ten bus to arrive but we trusted the weather forecast and were in our shirt sleeves, which drew some looks of open-mouthed disbelief from the local people who were wrapped in woollies and big coats.  I must confess to having been a bit uncomfortable and I was glad when the banana yellow no. 337 bus arrived dead on time and we relieved to find that the driver had the heating on.

Alcalá de Henares Madrid Spain

It is only forty-five kilometres to Madrid but that is by the direct route and the bus didn’t take the direct route as it meandered around the back roads and made several stops on the way.  For the first part of the journey the journey was through fields of brown earth scorched into submission by the long Castilian summer and now waiting expectantly for winter respite and some rain.

Later it did speed up as it reached the outskirts of the third largest city in western Europe (after London and Berlin) and joined a motorway that took us to the final stop just on the edge of the central part of the city.

It had taken just over an hour and by the time we arrived it had thankfully begun to warm up.  We could have walked to the centre but we weren’t completely sure just how far that was so instead we elected for the metro.  Kim was nervous about this because the last time on a metro was in Athens when she had her camera stolen by a pickpocket.

This time she kept a vice like grip on her belongings but she needn’t have worried because it was way past rush hour and we didn’t share the carriage with that many passengers, which meant that it was easy to keep clear of those on board that she distrusted – and that was everyone by the way!

City Symbol of Madrid

It was only a short journey underground and we emerged quickly into the sunshine in the Plaza de la Puerto Del Sol right in the centre of the city.  After Paris, London, Rome and Barcelona, Madrid is the fifth most visited city in Europe and there were a hundred and one things to do and see but all of the interesting stuff had to wait for a few minutes because the first thing Kim, Sue and Christine wanted to do was to go to a cake shop for a snack and a coffee.

This confused Mickey and I but we really had to concede mostly on account of this being Kim’s birthday and she was most determined to have a birthday cake before lunch.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Madrid, compared to London, Paris and Rome it only achieved capital status relatively recently, and there is no iconic building to define it, no Eiffel Tower, no Colosseum and no Westminster Abbey or famous cathedral or castle either so I was curious about what we were likely to see.

Madrid Cathedral

After we had had quite enough cakes we returned to the street and walked first in a westerly direction towards the Old City and the Palacio Real.  On the way we detoured via the Plaza Major the original city square with a large cobbled pedestrianised area, perfect for people to meet and chat and with grand buildings, a central statue and pavement cafés all around the sides.  We stayed for a while and then continued with our sightseeing.

It was an unusual day, it was approaching midday and there was a clear blue sky but it was cool in the shadows of the buildings and it was already obvious that we wouldn’t be enjoying the same high temperatures of just a couple of days ago.  We passed through the Mercado de San Miguel, which was no doubt once a proper indoor market but has now been converted to a rather trendy bijou sort of place with specialist food stalls offering small samples and a good range of vibrant tapas bars.  We might have stayed for a snack but we were still full of cake so we just wandered through and left.

Following the Calle Mayor we arrived at the city cathedral which seemed unusually modern and the reason for this is that when the capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the seat of the Church in Spain remained in Toledo so the new one had no cathedral. There obviously wasn’t a great deal of urgency about the matter however and construction of a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena did not begin until 1879 and due to the volatility of Spanish politics in the twentieth century was not completed until 1993.

Catalonia Spain

Next door to the Cathedral is the Palacio Real de Madrid, which with an area of one hundred and thirty-five square metres and nearly three thousand rooms is the biggest Palace in Europe and more than twice as big as Buckingham Palace in London.  It is the official residence of the King of Spain but he doesn’t live there, probably because it must be a bugger to heat in the winter and it is only used for official State Ceremonies.

King Juan Carlos and the Royal Family choose to live instead in the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid.

We walked around the outside of the white stone palace and admired the views over the royal gardens and then visited the adjacent Plaza de Orient a spacious and well laid out pedestrian area with an extravagant fountain and equestrian statue of Philip IV surrounded by immaculate gardens with lines of statues of former Kings celebrating the period of the Reconquesta.

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More posts about Royal Palaces:

Spain 2009 – Arunjuez

Palace Real Alcázar, Seville

San Ildefonso o La Granja

Palace of Versailles

Peterhof Palace, Saint-Petersburg

Buckingham Palace, London

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Road Trip – Madrid and Castilla y Leon

” Castile has no coast, so tourists in search of a beach leave it alone…. Castile is almost overlooked.  If Spain is hard, extreme, hot, cold, empty, then Castile is more so.” –  Christopher House – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

It was still hot and the long straight road just kept going and going with nothing to break the monotony of the empty plains and the expanse of dusty red soil and the occasional vineyard.  As we drove I started to get a sense of just how big Spain is; four times larger than England and not as many people living in it either.

At some point in the afternoon we crossed the Guadiana River for a second time today and then drove through the towns of Valdepeñas, Manzanares  and Tembleque and then the sun started to go down and it began to get dark.

Catalonia Spain The Pyrenees

We were very hungry now and we needed fuel so we stopped at a truck stop and filling station and went inside.  The truckers, who were watching the ‘Muppet Show’ on TV, in Spanish, seemed surprised to see us and when there was a power cut and everything went pitch black we feared the worst might happen especially as Tembleque has one of the largest civil prisons in Spain.

When the power was restored a few minutes later and Kermit reappeared we nodded our appreciation to them for not murdering and robbing us and we set off again in the direction of Madrid.

Finally we reached the capital where once again there was no ring road and we were sucked into the city centre at the peak of Friday rush hour.  This was a terrible experience, driving down a main city street with no road markings, no logic to the traffic light sequencing and pedestrians fearlessly crossing the road and dodging the cars.

We stopped to ask directions but that wasn’t very helpful and at one point with Richard driving and on the wrong road we told him to reverse and correct his position.  We calculated that this was a safe thing to do because the traffic behind was held back by a red light but in the middle of the manoeuvre the lights changed and we didn’t want to be there because it was a bit like being caught in the middle of the road at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix!

Richard fearlessly completed the direction correction and slowly we began to crawl north out of the city.  It was about seven o’clock and we were six hours behind schedule, we should have been at the French border but we had only completed about five hundred miles.

As we finally left Madrid behind us we started to climb into the mountains and the temperature started to fall.  It started to fall a lot!  We had forgotten about the bodged repair to the heater because up until now we hadn’t needed it but now it was getting cold and it would have been rather nice.  And it got darker and darker and the missing headlight was becoming a problem and other irritated motorists were constantly flashing us.

While I took my turn at the wheel the other three put on extra clothing and went to sleep and I continued in silence and then it started to snow.  I didn’t know that it snowed in Spain!  Driving was becoming ever more difficult now and it wasn’t made easier when at one point Richard woke with a start and began to grab the wheel because in his disorientation he thought that I had strayed onto the wrong carriageway and I had to fight him off and settle him down before carrying on.

By ten o’clock we had been on road for seventeen hours and I was tired, hungry and had just plain had enough!  We had passed into Castilla y León and were high in the mountains approaching the town of Aranda del Duoro when suddenly some welcoming lights appeared and I decided that if this was somewhere to stop and sleep I was stopping and sleeping.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

It was a classy looking hotel called the Tudanca-Aranda II that from the temporary warmth of the back seat Anthony and Tony declared too expensive but I didn’t care and went to enquire about availability.  It turned out that this was a Spanish state hotel, which were luxury hotels in old castles, palaces, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings and are now part of the exclusive Parador group.

The hotels were set up by the state to promote quality tourism to act as guardian of the national and artistic heritage of Spain and to assist poorer regions to attract more visitors.

This one was an old hacienda and I don’t think they were expecting too many visitors on this particular night.  As it was a state hotel it was also ridiculously cheap so I booked a room for Richard and I and went back to the car where the others were getting ready for an uncomfortable night in the vehicle but were delighted when I broke the price news and they quickly joined us at check in.

Our final problem for this day was that we didn’t have many pesetas so we had to make a decision; food or beer?  While we had a first San Miguel the barman provided us with plates of little tapas snacks and as they just seemed to keep coming we kept eating them and this seemed to be the perfect solution.  Free food meant all of our money was available for wasting on beer! On reflection I am certain that we were just the sort of clientele that they did not want!

We didn’t stop up long though because we were exhausted and I can still remember, without exaggeration, the pleasure of getting undressed and climbing into the most comfortable bed that I have ever slept in, in my life.

Have you ever been really happy to find somewhere to stop and sleep?