Tag Archives: Photography

Travels in Spain, The Royal Palace of San Ildefonso o La Granja

San Ildefonso o la granja 1

“I came on the Royal gardens of La Granja – acres of writhing statues, walks and fountains rising from the dust like a mirage. A grandiose folly, as grand as Versailles and even more extravagant” – Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning’

After breakfast we checked out and were reunited with the little Chevrolet Matiz that we hadn’t used for two days and we set off on our planned route back in the direction of Madrid.  We could have used the new motorway link that tunnels through the mountains but our plan was to use the mountain roads and go over the top.

We left the town and headed south towards our first destination of San Ildefonso o La Granja about ten miles away in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and the location of a fabulous Royal Palace.

After driving through Nuevo Segovia we soon arrived in the town where there were a lot of road works and building activity, which made it difficult to find where we were going but we parked the car just outside of the town and walked through the gates into the Baroque streets and sauntered in what we supposed to be the direction of the Palace.  Kim wasn’t feeling so well this morning and she had a stiff neck and vertigo from watching the Storks so we found a little café and as the streets were still quite cool sat inside and had a coffee and an early slice of tortilla.

The town was wonderfully quiet, no coach tours and very few visitors as we walked to the Palace through the front garden and to the pay desk where admission was free on Wednesday if you could demonstrate European Union citizenship so we flashed our passports and avoided what was actually a very reasonable €4 admission charge.  Won’t be able to do that after March 2019, I should have taken that into consideration when I voted LEAVE!

San Ildefonso o la Granja x 3

The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso is a palace set in extensive gardens in the French style of Versailles that was built for King Philip V in the early eighteenth century and remains today an official residence of the King of Spain.  The Spanish Royal family used to like to leave Madrid in the baking hot summer months and take up residence in the mountains where the climate is cooler and more agreeable and looking around the place it was easy to see why.

Inside the dark rooms it was quite chilly and an attendant in woollies and a topcoat looked at me in my shirt sleeves as though I had escaped from an institution and gave a surrogate shiver as we examined the exhibition of Flemish tapestries before moving through a succession of state rooms all of which had magnificent views of the adjacent gardens and the snow capped mountains beyond.

Best of all was the Royal bedroom with a perfect balcony vista overlooking the fountains in the garden.  I didn’t get a sense that the present King, Felipe VI actually uses this room anymore and he probably has an apartment somewhere hidden away, which has a twenty-first century specification with wireless Internet access and Sky TV that this one certainly didn’t have.

In fact the King of Spain has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at any of them very often, most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.  By comparison the Queen of England also has eight Royal residencies but only one is officially a Palace (Buckingham of course).

It was nice inside but when the sun is shining I prefer to be outside so I suppose I rushed us through the rooms a bit hastily and after finishing in the predictable shop selling lots of Royal souvenirs that we didn’t want we emerged into the gardens and the very pleasant sunshine.

From the Palace we walked through the King’s back garden along the row of fountains all of which represent various themes from classical mythology, including Greek deities, allegories and scenes from ancient myths. They are cast in lead to prevent corrosion, and painted over to simulate the nobler material of bronze, or lacquered over white oxydised lead to imitate marble. Amazingly the original waterworks and piping are still functional: they rely purely on gravity to project water up to the forty-meter height of the fountain jet of Perseus and Andromeda because an artificial lake, El Mar, lies secluded at the highest point of the park, and provides a reservoir and sufficient water pressure for the whole system.

Today, only a few fountains are active each day and only during the real tourist season but twice a year, on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis all twenty-six fountains are set to work, providing what must be a truly memorable aquatic show.  To try and imagine just what it might be like I have to rely on the account of Laurie Lee:

“A hundred fountains were playing filling the sky with rainbows and extraordinary dreamlike clamour. Marble Gods and wood-nymphs, dragons and dolphins, their anatomies studded with pipes and nozzles, directed complex cascades at one another or shot them high over the trees…. Lakes, pools, jets and falls, flooded grottoes and exotic canals, all throbbed and surged at different levels, reflecting classical arbours, paths and terraces, or running like cooling milk down the statuary.” 

It didn’t really matter to us, the effervescent snow on the mountains completely compensated for a lack of fountain action.

San Ildefonso o la Granja 2

Other Royal Palaces in Spain:

Palacio Real Madrid

Arunjuez

Palace Real Alcázar, Seville

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Travels in Spain, The Alcazar of Segovia

Segovia Spain

“The finest sight in Castile, is how Segovians sweepingly define the first appearance of their city and I agree with them: there are few urban compositions on earth to equal the impact of Segovia….” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

After we had finished our drink in Ávila it was reluctantly time to leave.  We had liked it here but it was time to go and drive to our final destination, Segovia, about thirty miles away to the east.  This involved a drive along the line of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the central mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula which effectively splits Spain in two, north and south.

The approach to Segovia was truly wonderful and still some way out we could see a golden city on a convenient rocky outcrop rising majestically from the plain with a spectacular mountain backdrop and the Cathedral and the Alcázar reaching dramatically into the blue sky.

I was determined not to repeat the parking difficulties of Ávila but this plan went spectacularly wrong after I drove through the gates into the old city and tried to guess a way to the Plaza Mayor where our hotel was waiting for us.  We made a couple of circuits stopping here and there to consult an inadequate map and then by chance arrived at the main square where our path was blocked by one of those steel retractable bollards and my dramatic entrance raised the eyebrows of some nearby pedestrians.

Some men in a bar directed me to another entrance and this had a bollard in the down position and an intercom to request permission to enter.  There was no answer and I was nervous about driving across it in case it raised up without warning and the CCTV cameras would catch the moment and I would forever be shown on television repeats of the Spanish equivalent of ‘Caught on Camera’.  I could sense that a bus driver behind was getting impatient so I had to go and I revved the engine and popped the clutch, spun the wheels and dashed across as quickly as I could.  Nothing happened – the bollard stayed down of course.

We were staying at the Sercotel Infanta Isabel and we had one of the best rooms on the second floor with a perfect view of the Plaza Mayor lined with cafés and bars and with the Cathedral directly opposite.

Segovia x 6

As it went dark it was nice to sit and watch the square melting from afternoon into evening with plenty of street activity.  There were lots of Segovians walking out in families and we joined them in the busy streets and looked for somewhere to eat.  We walked further than planned and ended up at the Aqueduct, which we were really saving until tomorrow so finding ourselves at the bottom of the town we walked back and by my choice found a little restaurant that turned out to be quite disappointing.

The next morning after breakfast we walked out into the sociable main square and followed a street adjacent to the Cathedral and walked in the direction of the Alcázar, which according to visitor statistics is the most visited castle in Spain.

The route took us through narrow streets, past craft shops and churches and eventually brought us out at the north of the city on the top of a rocky outcrop that was the location of the fortress that was begun in the twelfth century and was subsequently occupied by a succession of Castilian monarchs from Alfonso X to Phillip II and Charles III.

Alcazar Segovia

Segovia and the Spanish tourist board would have us believe that the Alcázar was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland and Disneyworld but there is no real evidence for this.  In fact it is more likely that the famous icon of the Disney empire was inspired principally by Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria and several picturesque French palaces, most notably Louis XIV’s Versailles although it is also quite possible that the Alcázar in Segovia may also have been an important influence.

We purchased tickets to visit the Alcázar and paid a little extra to climb to the top of the Torre de Juan II (total price €6 each).  The castle was busy with a coach full of Japanese tourists and several school visits so we had to try and arrange our journey through the rooms and exhibits to try and avoid the busy sections and the crowds.  After visiting the state rooms and the armouries we ended our visit with a climb of three hundred and twenty steps up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower where we were rewarded for our efforts with fabulous views over the city and the surrounding countryside.

It had taken most of the morning to visit the Alcázar and after we were finished we walked back to the Plaza Mayor for a drink and a tapas and selected a bar with tables in the sun and sat and enjoyed watching the residents of Segovia as they went about their business of the day in probably the same way that they have for a thousand years.  A walk around the square, a sit down, a chat, a walk around the square, a sit down, a chat and so on and so on.

It was hot now and we were enjoying the sun so when the bar owner pulled down the canopy for shade we moved on back into the side streets to find a photo opportunity of a medieval door that had inspired us from a description in a guide book that we had purchased at the castle.  With mission accomplished and pictures in the can we returned to the square and stopped at a different bar for more drink and more tapas and then left and walked in the opposite direction towards the Roman Aqueduct.

Segovia 02

Travels in Spain, Ávila The Pride and The Passion

Avila Hotel

The weather was so settled that I practically stopped carrying out the early morning check because it was so constantly reliable and this morning we just went down to breakfast without giving it a second thought.

After eating we had an early walk into the town before checking out of the hotel and we stepped out in shirt sleeves but were immediately forced back to get a jacket because although the sun was shining, at this elevation, there was a sharp chill in the air.

The hotel was next to the cathedral, which was closed to visitors this morning on account of this being Sunday and the local people were using the place for the purpose for which it was really intended so we walked around the outside instead and were delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the building.  They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers.  Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form.  Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire

.Avila View From walls

Progressing outside of the old city walls we found ourselves in the middle of preparations for a half marathon that was going to take place around the city walls with athletes all warming up and preparing for the big event.  In the early morning sun the view over the table top plain to the snow capped mountains in the distance was unexpected and wonderful and we sat for a while and enjoyed it.  It was peaceful and serene and I felt unusually contented.  It seemed hard to believe that twenty-four hours ago we were driving across the southern plains with all thoughts of winter behind us and now were in the mountains surrounded by snow.

We wished we were staying a second night in Ávila but sadly we weren’t and after we had checked out of the hotel we went back into the city to walk the walls, which are the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still capture the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress.

It is over a mile long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates.  Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.

Avila x 4

We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate routes to which our tickets entitled us entrance and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall.  There were excellent views of the town, of the countryside beyond and the Storks sitting on their piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings.  We thought that Ávila seemed nicer than Toledo and friendlier too because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English.  There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.

After completing two of the sections we stopped for a drink in the sun in San Vicente Square on the outside of the walls and we agreed that we really liked the practice of always providing a little tapas with the drinks and we hatched a cunning plan – three bars, three drinks, three tapas, free lunch!

Spain Tapas

Just as we were leaving a mini-bus pulled up and a dozen or so men in blue and white football shirts got out.  They were making a lot of noise and made straight for the bar.  They were here from the nearby town of Aranda de Duero to watch a football match because their team Arandina were playing Real Ávila in the Spanish third division but as kick off wasn’t until five o’clock they were probably going to be doing a lot of drinking that afternoon in preparation.

Rested and refreshed we continued our walk around the walls but it became a bit repetitive and we tired of the reoccurring turrets and the seemingly endless walk so we abandoned the top of the wall and returned to street level and walked around the exterior instead.  After about an hour we re-entered the city at the Puerta de Santa Teresa on the west side and walked through the twisted narrow streets through the commercial centre and the market place and then deftly bypassed the shops back to the cathedral where we turned down the opportunity to pay and go inside in preference for staying outside in the sunshine.

The sun was quite strong now but there was a stiff breeze blowing off the adjacent plain and accelerating through the narrow streets so I don’t think we appreciated just how strong it was.  Soon we were back where we started at the Puerta Del Alcázar and it was time for a final drink and tapas before we prepared to leave.

The drinking group were all happy now and in very high spirits and I expect they were even happier after the game because I checked the football results later and Arandina won the match 2-1.

Avila Blue Sky

Travels in Spain, Toledo to Ávila

Castilla y Leon

“When you approach from the west almost all you see is its famous wall, a mile and a half of castellated granite… it looks brand new, so perfect is its preservation and seems less like an inanimate rampart than a bivouac of men-at-arms….” –  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’ 

We had spent nearly four hours in the city of Toledo but that wasn’t nearly enough time to appreciate fully the medieval magnificence of the place and in truth we had been way over ambitious and given ourselves too much to do in one day and with still a long way to go to reach our final destination we had to leave before we were ready and before we had seen everything we wanted to see.

On reflection our itinerary should have included a night in Toledo to give us more time but that wasn’t an option now because we had a hotel waiting for us in Ávila.

Leaving Toledo was just as easy as driving in and quickly we were out of the city and heading north again and skirting around Madrid with another one hundred miles to go.  For the first part of the journey there was nothing very special or exciting, every twenty miles or so there was a ruined castle like decayed teeth in the gums of the tawny hills once completing the Spanish defensive ring around Madrid and we seemed tantalising close to the cities and towns that I recognised from the Sharpe novels and the Peninsular War stories, Talavera, Badajoz, Salamanca and Ciudad Rodrigo but these were all to the west on the way to Portugal and we had no time to detour to any of them.

Spain Castles

As we crossed into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, crystal lakes, busy rivers and snow capped mountains.  We were climbing all the time and it was a complete transformation as we left behind the picturesque whitewashed villages of La Mancha and the towns now had grey stone walls and flat tiled roofs and we had completely lost the appearance of Mediterranean Spain.

Eventually we reached a desolate treeless table top plateau with a wilderness landscape with giant grey boulders lying randomly on the bracken coloured land and then we dropped a little and at three thousand feet started to approach Ávila, the highest provincial capital in Spain.

The old city of Ávila is completely enclosed within a medieval wall and as our hotel was inside it we drove through one of the main gates and into tangle of narrow streets and immediately got lost and confused.  Just as things were beginning to look hopeless we found a tourist information office and went inside for help.  The man at the desk explained that parking was very difficult (we’d guessed that already) and that it would be best to go back out of the old city and park in a public car park nearby.  He gave me a street map that looked like a bowl of spaghetti and told me that it was too difficult for him to try to explain how to get out and that I should just drive around until I get to a gate.  ‘Thank you very much, that was very helpful’ I muttered silently under my breath.

Avila x 6

Well, we eventually found the way out and the car park and then we had to walk back into the city and to the Plaza Catedral to find the Hotel Palacio De Los Velada.  We passed some lovely hotels on the way and I worried about my choice but I needn’t have because it turned out to be exceptional.  It was a four star hotel and we don’t usually do four star hotels but I had picked up an excellent half price deal and found ourselves staying in a genuine old seventeenth century palace that had been converted into this excellent hotel with a large internal courtyard, grand wooden balconies, sumptuous furniture and a brilliant room.

I congratulated myself on a real result as I opened the wine with a corkscrew that we had treated ourselves to at a nearby supermarket.  I had a very good feeling about Ávila.

Later we walked out into the city and looked for somewhere to eat.  Our first choice refused to serve off of the menu del dia so we left and then found a rustic sort of place serving simple meals from the cheaper menu and we had a meal of Castilian soup and the local specialty of roasted suckling pig.  On the walk back to the hotel there was a black velvet sky full of bright stars and a big full moon that reflected off of the snow on the Gredos Sierra Mountains and things looked very promising for another good day tomorrow.

Avila External

Travels in Spain, The Roman City of Segóbriga

Segobriga Spain 01

“I saw the great gold plains, the arid and mystical distances, where the sun rose up like a butcher each morning and left curtains of blood each night.”  Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning

After seeing all that there was to see in the quiet town of Belmonte, we needed something to do for the afternoon so after consulting the guide book and the information available at the hotel reception we decided to drive to the Roman ruins at Segóbriga about thirty miles away.

I wasn’t especially optimistic that there would be a great deal to see there so I drove deliberately slowly and stopped often for photo opportunities of the fields with their attractive contours and delightful pastel hues.  Along the way we looked for somewhere to eat and passed through a couple of villages but as it turned out there was little chance of food and drink because we concluded that the people that lived there probably think that Belmonte is exciting.

Along the way we left the road to follow a track to the Castle of Almenara but it was in a state of extreme disrepair, awaiting restoration and closed to visitors so we returned to the road and carried on.  Within a few minutes we spotted the signs to Segóbriga and as we turned into the historic site we were immediately astonished by the size of the place because it turned out that this is the most important Roman archaeological site in all of Central Spain.

Amazing! And I had never even heard of it.

Segobriga x 9

There was a café on site where we had an overpriced bocadillo and a small beer before moving on to the entrance where a Spanish lady seemed genuinely pleased to see visitors from England in early March and gave us some precise and clear instructions to make sure we enjoyed our visit to the full.  First of all there was a little film about the Romans in Spain and then a considerable walk to get to the main site and the excavations.

Segóbriga was a textbook designed Roman city – there was a theatre, a five thousand seat amphitheatre, a chariot racetrack  a basilica, a temple, public baths, a cistern and a complex system of sewers, everything in fact that you would expect to find in an important city of Rome.

It was wonderful to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the amphitheatre, sit in the seats of the theatre and imagine that in this very place there were gladiators in its arena, actors in its theatre, emperor worshippers in the temples, Roman Legionnaires swaggering through the streets, magistrates in magnificent purple togas parading around importantly, and slaves of course in rags to do all of the dirty work.

Segobriga x 3

Segóbriga was a mining town and the mines brought great wealth and made some of the local families very rich but they weren’t mining for precious metals or for fuel but for a very specialised commodity.  What they wanted was plaster, or rather gypsum, which in its crystal state (selenite) is transparent and these rocks could be split into fine sheets to make windows in an age before the Romans had begun to manufacture and use glass.

In ancient Rome buildings had wind eyes, which were square or rectangular holes in walls to let in light and air but without glass panes.  To let in the light had the disadvantage of letting in the weather as well so probably most of the time people kept those windows blocked with a curtain or a shutter.  The idea to use the sheets of crystal gypsum for window panes came around the turn of the millennium when an architect imported some from Spain and used them as skylights to light the public baths in Rome. This caught on quickly and the rich started doing the same for their houses and villas and in time it was used as wind eye glass and the very best quality gypsum came from right here in Segóbriga.

Because we had to wait so long for uncooperative people to move so that we could take the perfect uncluttered photographs it took almost three hours to explore the site and then to visit the museum and it was a long walk round so what had started out as a planned easy day had turned out instead to be very full and very tiring.

We drove back to Belmonte in the early evening and after a rest and a glass of wine did the same things as the previous night and went to the hotel down the street, where the friendly barman insisted on showing us the downstairs cellar bar and invited us back later and we thanked him for that but what we didn’t tell him was that it didn’t open until way past our bed time, and then we ate again in the hotel restaurant and had a third good traditional style Spanish evening meal.

This was our last night in Belmonte and as we packed our bags so that we could make an early start in the morning we reflected on what had been three excellent days in Castilla-La Mancha and we looked forward to a short drive in the morning to the town of Almagro.

segobriga-A

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More posts about Roman Ruins:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

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Travels in Spain, Belmonte Castle and El Cid

Belmonte Castle

When it was night the Cid lay down. In a deep sleep he fell,
And to him in a vision came the angel Gabriel:
“Ride, Cid, most noble Campeador, for never yet did knight
Ride forth upon an hour whose aspect was so bright.
While thou shalt live good fortune shall be with thee and shine.”    

It was another excellent morning and behind the dark shutters the early morning sun was waiting to strike lack a dagger as soon as they were opened.  The sky was clear and it was  serene and tranquil with absolute silence but for the merry chirruping of the house martins nesting in the garden and already well into their days work.

The breakfast room was busier this morning as a few families had checked in the previous afternoon so while we waited to use the toasting machine I had a look around the room and the pictures on the wall.  At the far end there were photographs of the actor Charlton Heston in the film El Cid and the man on duty behind the bar tried to explain to me in a combination of Spanish and English (mostly Spanish) that some of the movie was filmed right here in Belmonte at the fifteenth century castle that overlooks the town.

El Cid Belmonte Castle

Although the sun was shining it was quite cool in the shade so we kept to the sunny side of the street and after breakfast made for the castle.  On the way we stopped to ask directions and a lady showed us the route but explained in sign language that it wasn’t open at the moment (several times).  This didn’t come as a complete surprise I have to say because there was an enormous crane sticking out of the top of it and even from a distance it was obvious that the builders were in.

Despite this it looked well worth an external visit anyway so we left by a town gate and began to walk up an unmade path towards the castle.  The walk involved quite an arduous climb, especially as I insisted on trying to reach the highest point for the best view and this meant negotiating an almost vertical ascent up a loose shale path that crumbled away under our feet at every step.  I was puffing by the top but tried to pretend that I wasn’t!

But it was worth it and we were rewarded with great views over the town and from here we could clearly see its military footprint because Belmonte is a fortified town at the foot of the magnificently sturdy castle which was part of the ring of fortifications that marked the front line in the medieval power struggle between the Spanish Christians and the African Moors.

On the way back down to the castle we crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston led an assault against the Moors on his white stead Babieca and his mighty sword La Tizona flashing menacingly in the Christian charge.

Belmonte Spain

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion.  He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid.  It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia. It’s a good story but the film takes a lot of historical liberties so it’s best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The castle is a declared national monument and it was closed for some serious renovation and no one seemed to know with any degree of certainty when it would open again.  It was a shame not to be able to visit but we walked around the outside underneath its imposing towers and told ourselves it was a good excuse to come back sometime.   From here there were uninterrupted views over the Meseta, the massive central plateau of Spain laid out like a patchwork quilt in front of us.  It was obvious why they built the castle here because no one was going to sneak up on them, that’s for sure!

Mont St Michel Door

From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where elderly ladies in shabby black dresses and faded floral pinafores sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing the weekend football results and important matters of state.  In the centre of town there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for years, a florist and a photographer.

What we really wanted was a bar with outside tables but there were none and I formed the impression that the town was really only just waking up to spring, like a snowdrop under a fall of snow and after a longer than normal winter wasn’t yet quite certain enough that it was really here and to have the confidence to put the tables and chairs outside without having to hastily bring them back inside again.

Instead we walked to the other side of the town to some more windmills, made a visit to the collegiate church which was absurdly overpriced at €2 each and took about ten minutes to look around (and that was dawdling) and that was it and after only three hours that was Belmonte visited, seen and finished.

Charlton Heston El Cid

Some more posts about El Cid…

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid, the Film, Fact and Fiction

Northern Spain – The City of Burgos

El Cid Charging

Travels in Spain, The Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Cuenca Blue Sky

“It gave me vertigo to imagine what it must be like living up there, a permanent aviator above the trees”   Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

From Belmonte to Cuenca was a distance of about sixty miles and leaving Belmonte the drive took us first of all through gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours that rolled rhythmically but desolately away in all directions. A stunning vista of subtle hues and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter-milk cream, dusty olive, lavender grey, pheasant copper and russet gold that were almost autumnal all lying lifeless and crushed under the burden of a vivid blue spring sky.

Now we were on the ‘Ruta de Don Quixote’ which is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of castles and windmills stretching all the way in a circuitous route from Madrid to Toledo.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

We were using a relatively minor road and after half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills there was more drama with steep sided hills and pine forests and the busy water of the Júcar River dashing madly through narrow gorges.  We were approaching the city of Cuenca.

Cuenca is a big city and capital of the fifth largest province in Spain but we found a parking spot next to the river with surprising ease.  The city was built here because the rocky outcrop of land lies between two deep river gorges, the Júcar and the Huécar and it made an excellent location for a defendable fortress.

At three hundred miles long the Júcar is a big river but it was not especially lively today in the City and we followed a man in a battered sombrero along the path next to the lethargic oozy green water that slipped lazily by until we came to steep steps that took us away from the water and up towards the old city, through a crumbling arch and into the main street to the top.  On the way we passed some brightly coloured tall buildings just before a narrow archway in the road underneath the town hall that led into the Plaza Mayor.

In the Plaza there were more gaily coloured houses, shops and pavement cafés and bars and the city’s Cathedral that was completed in the thirteenth century but partly fell down in 1902 and over a hundred years later the rebuilding of the façade still remains to be fully completed and remains a curious mix of architectural styles from Anglo-Norman to Iberian Gothic.

Cuenca Spain Coloured Houses

We continued to the top stopping on the way to climb the castle walls and to admire the scenery of the gorges stretching out seemingly endlessly on either side of the city.  Climbing even further we reached the very top and here there were various vantage points of the city from elevated craggy rocks where people, without the precaution of a parachute were walking out and taking as much risk as they might dare just to get the perfect selfie  photograph.

Standing above the vast ravine that winds its way around Cuenca I could suddenly see why this was once regarded as the unconquerable city.  This ancient citadel is perched on a steep rocky peak, high above the surrounding plain, and the treacherous gorge below encircles the city like a moat and this is the deepest moat you’ve ever seen, a giddy drop of several hundred feet, with nothing beneath to break a fall.

From this position it was clear to see how the city had developed.  There was only limited space at the top of the rock so as it grew and it was unable to expand outwards the city went up instead and that explained the tall houses.  Even more dramatically it also went as far as it possibly could in making use of all available space and in the fifteenth century houses were built like Swallow’s nests with rooms and balconies partly and precariously overhanging the gorge above the Huécar River.

These are called the Las Casas Colgadas, the hanging houses, and are the most famous attraction in the city.

Cuenca Lamp

It was time for lunch but at half past three the bars and restaurants were all overcrowded and doing brisk business and with no prospect of a seat there we had to walk back towards the town and discovered a place in full sun overlooking a rather splendid convent.  I was surprised that the town was so full but we learned later that today was Father’s day in Spain and all of the children were off school and out with their parents for the day.

We decided to have some tapas but the menu was giving nothing away in assisting with a selection of dishes we didn’t recognise and the waitress could give no helpful explanation except in Spanish so we went for the ‘surprise me option’ and stabbed a nervous finger towards a couple of items on the menu and sat back in anticipation.

When it arrived we had a chicken dish and a sort of mutton stew, which we probably wouldn’t have knowingly selected but it was tasty and filling and we ate it all and when we had finished we communicated to the waitress the best that we could that we had thoroughly enjoyed it in that polite sort of way that we do when we cannot speak each other’s language.

It was late afternoon so we left Cuenca getting slightly lost in the tangle of streets on the way out and with no real alternative returned to Belmonte by the same route, first through the rugged hills, the raging water and the winding road and then to the gentle rolling plains, the languid fields and the long straight road.

Later we walked out again and even though this was Father’s day Belmonte was just as quiet as the night before but we found a nice bar in a hotel in the centre of town where we had drinks and olives before returning to the Palacio Buenavista Hospedestra for evening meal, a last drink in the bar and a second early night.

It had been a very good day indeed!

Cuenca x 3