Tag Archives: Toledo

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.

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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, Museums

Kim doesn’t always share my enthusiasm for Museums.  She sat this one out but from the garden outside caught me looking at the exhibits through a window.

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.

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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.

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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, Don Quixote and The Windmills of Consuegra

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It was going to be a long day so we woke early ready for a quick start and as usual my first job was to check the weather.

The air felt fresher and from the hotel window I could see cloud to the east, which was a bit of a worry but the lady on Spanish breakfast television seemed confident that it was going to be fine and out to the west it was clear blue and that was the direction in which we were heading.

We drove first to the town of Alcázar de San Juan but this wasn’t because of any sort of thorough pre travel planning on my part just an instinct that it would be interesting based on what seemed to be a rather promising name.  I should have carried out some proper research because when we got there it didn’t seem very appealing at all, there wasn’t a castle to be seen and the clouds that were quicker than us had caught up and overtaken and there was a bleached out sort of chalky whiteness to the sky so we rather rudely carried on without stopping.

Back at the hotel there had been pictures of a castle and a row of windmills at the next town of Consuegra so as it came into view we left the main road and headed towards the top of the ridge where they stood like regimental sentinels overlooking the town.   Across the crest of the hill they marched like giants.  No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword and charged in combat to fight these creaking monsters.

Don Quixote and Windmills

The windmills stand in line and look down on the flat red dirt plains of La Mancha, their once free flowing sails now arthritically stiff, tied down tightly and no longer spinning in the wind. They are almost smug in what is now their supremely safe tourist protected environment, they no longer have to work you see.

Originally, there were thirteen whitewashed windmills lining this hilltop. Now only eleven remain of which four still retain their working mechanisms. Known as “molinos” in Spain, the windmills are each named — Sancho, Bolero, Espartero, Mambrino, Rucio, Cardeno, Alcancia, Chispas, Callabero del Verde Gaban, Clavileno and Vista Alegre.

Each imperious windmill is actually nothing more than a tall cylindrical tower capped with a dark cone and four big sails and until relatively recently local farmers would haul their grain to these rural factories for grinding into flour. I was surprised to learn that they remained in use until as recently as the beginning of the 1980s.  One is now an inevitable gift shop.

The windmills and the skills required to operate them were passed down through the generations of millers from fathers to sons.  Windows placed around the tower of the windmill provide wonderful views today but that was not their original use.  From these windows the miller could keep watch on the shifting winds and when the winds changed he would have to move the tiller beam to turn the mill.   If he didn’t a sudden strong wind could strip the sails, rip off the top and the whole building could be destroyed in a moment of carelessness..

Consuegra Windmill Sail

In fact the weather was rather wild this morning on this exposed ridge high above the low lying plains as the wind moaned through the singing sail wires and as we walked between the sunburned black timber frames and admired the bulk of the brooding castle nearby we drew strange glances from bus tourists who were wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves that were much more appropriate than our linens and short sleeves.

From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a bit of a sorry state of disrepair but from here there were terrific views over the great plain of Castile and it was easy to see why this was once a very important military place as it guarded the direct route from the south to Toledo and Madrid.  The castle was once a stronghold of the Knights of San Juan, the Spanish branch of the Knight’s Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

After escaping the wind and leaving the rather untidy town of Consuegra we rejoined the road and headed north to Toledo and on the way the clouds evaporated and the sun poured through and we passed more castles at Mora and at Almonacid but we didn’t stop again.  The scenery began to change too as it became more untidy and scrub like as we left the chequerboard fields and their delightful colours behind.

Just before midday we reached the outskirts of Toledo and at the top of the city we could see the Alcázar and the Cathedral and we followed the signs to the historical centre and found a very large and convenient car park right on the edge of the city and in my league table of Spanish city car parks Toledo went straight to the top.

At the bottom by the way remains Seville!

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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…

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Spain, Doors and Windows

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