Northern Spain, Asturian Coast and Ribadesella

Cantabria Coastline Beach

The Beaches of Asturias…

This was the final stage of the long journey and we kept stubbornly to the coast road and took our time as we stopped off regularly at beaches along the way.

The first that we came to was just outside of the town of Llanes and we took the road which swooped down to Playa de Toro which translates as the beach of bulls and although I can find no explanation for this  I assumed that it was on account of the natural sculptures, little pronounced pinnacles – rocky outcroppings leaping up out of the caramel sand, skeletal survivors of the erosion action of the sea on calcareous rock and which, with a little imagination could be said to resemble a herd of black bulls charging into the surf.

At the back of the beach only a few kilometres away the Cantabrian mountains soared into the sky and as they did they collected all of the clouds that were sweeping in from the sea and here their progress was stalled like traffic at a motorway incident and they joined together in a sort of cloud congestion that grew darker and darker and obscured the peaks of the natural barrier between land and sea.

By contrast it was very sunny down on the beach and we wandered along the shoreline and watched the incoming tide before resting a while at a beach side restaurant and sat outside with diners who were tucking into the menu del dia.  We were tempted to join them but our plan was to eat in mid afternoon in preparation for the journey home so we resisted and carried on.

Lets Go Fly A Kite…

As we drove west the beaches on the Cantabrian coast come thick and fast and we stopped to admire the Playa de San Antonin where Atlantic breakers rolled in one after another and where surfers were practising the moves and then came across a beach, the name of which I carelessly forgot to find out where there was a gathering and an event and what looked like a thousand kites being flown in the sky.

We turned into the car park and walked along the sand and the grassy headland and admired the range of kites on display from the simple things that I remember from my boyhood holidays (two bits of wood, some plastic and string) to some very complex exhibits which I assume required great skill to keep up in the air.  I was glad that we had stumbled upon this because it was one of those Spanish festivals/events which includes all of the family and is quite unlike anything in the UK.

Cantabria Kite Flying Beach

All of a sudden time was ticking by quite quickly and it was getting close to our intended lunch stop so we left the hobby kite fliers and continued on to the seaside town of Ribadesella and found a parking spot in a strangely solumbulant Saturday afternoon town where boats rested in the water and the seafood restaurants were serving unhurried food to relaxed diners and there was a lazy ambiance as we strolled along the harbour street looking for a restaurant.

There were a number to select from but as the sun was shining and this might well have been the best weather of the entire week we wanted to find a table in the sun and we had to walk practically the entire length of the harbour to find one.  Tables in the sun are generally free because local diners prefer the shade and this was no exception as we settled ourselves down for lunch.

We choose the four course menu del dia which turned out to be wonderful and we sat and ate and shared the bottle of red wine and reflected on our journey.  It had been an excellent week and we had enjoyed every place that we had visited.  Castilla y León is not the most attractive region in Spain but it is encrusted with the jewels of the cities that stand out like diamonds and more than compensate for the dreary landscape and we had enjoyed our itinerary which took us through most of Spain’s largest Autonomous Community.

After lunch we walked through the streets of the town but our visit had clearly coincided with the afternoon siesta and many places were closed and those that were open were not very enthusiastic about receiving customers so after a walk through the town and a last look at the harbour we returned to the car and headed for the Autovia del Cantabria for the very final stretch of our drive.

The road took us south of the industrial towns of Gijón and Avilés we sped past without stopping, filled the hire car with fuel and then made our way back to the airport and the late evening flight home to London Stansted.

Ribadasella Cantabria SpainAsturias Postcard

 

 

Northern Spain – Cantabrian Coast, Comillas and Gaudi

Comillas Cantabria

Cantabria, Mountains and Coastline…

Although the forecast was poor the weather by contrast was better than expected and there was a clear blue sky with just a few wispy clouds and from the museum car park it was possible to see the sea only a few hundred metres away.  We drove out of the village on a road that climbed quickly and at the top we were overawed by a sight that we were not prepared for.  At a distance of about fifty kilometres we could see the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa which remained snow capped and glistening white in the mid morning sun.

We headed towards the coast road and enjoyed the dramatic contrast of the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the lush green meadows of the hills to the right with the snow drizzled mountains in the near distance.   We were heading for the town of Comillas but stopped several times to admire the power of the sea as great waves rolled in and fizzed onto and through the caramel sand and caressed the random rocks littering the beaches.

I had always thought of Spain as a Mediterranean country but closer inspection of the map shows that a third of the Country’s coastline is along the much more dramatic Atlantic Ocean and the Cantabrian coast is over two hundred kilometres of panoramic beaches, hidden coves tucked into the pleats of the cliffs, green headlands and little towns where fishing boats shelter below harbour cafés.

Comillas, Cantabria…

In the high summer Comillas is a very busy seaside town but it is a lot quieter in May and there was plenty of room in the car park to park the car.  We walked across the pristine blue flag beach washed scrupulously clean by the strong tides and then towards the little harbour with a handful of colourful little fishing boats lying lop-sided as though recovering from a heavy night out on the San Miguel and sheltering behind the strong granite walls.  The tide was coming in quickly and as we watched the harbour began to fill with water and one by one the little boats sprang into life as the sea lifted them off of the mud and they began to dance on the water.

Gaudii Capricho ComillasAntoni Gaudi and me

Comillas is a declared historic/artistic site that in the nineteenth century was once popular with the Spanish nobility who built many fine buildings and mansions here and is picturesque enough to get it hovering near to any top ten list of best small towns in Spain (ok, there are a lot of these lists so it isn’t difficult to pop up now and again in one or another of them).

El Capricho, Gaudi in Cantabria…

Before we left we drove into the old town where there were some fascinating buildings but none better than a rare example of the work of  Antoni Gaudi outside of Barcelona, a mansion called El Capricho complete with a signature tile clad tower, playful ceramic sunflowers and whimsical images of animals playing instruments.

It was built in 1883 for a nobleman who wanted an exotic villa in an oriental style and the really significant fact is that this was Gaudi’s very first commission.  There was a €7 admission charge which was a bit of a shock but having walked all the way through the town to find the place we went through with the transaction and made the visit to the house and the gardens and we were glad that we did.  Kim may have got tired of towers, castles and cathedrals but she remains comfortable with palaces and Gaudi it seems.

So far today the only disappointing thing was the weather which remained rather dreary but as we left El Capricho the sky began to brighten and the temperature leapt a degree or two and we took the opportunity to walk through the historical centre and the flower filled Plaza Mayor and alongside the fish restaurants that were already preparing for lunch time business but being too early for food we moved on and continued our final journey.

San Vicente De La Barquera…

When we reached the motorway we headed promptly west again and in a very short time we were in the fishing town of San Vicente De La Barquera where there was an interesting castle and an old town that stretched from the headland to the church of Santa María de los Ángeles and which enjoyed magnificent views over a busy river estuary to the mountains beyond and a good view too of the Maza Bridge, with its twenty-eight arches, which was built on the orders of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs in the sixteenth century.

Shortly after leaving San Vicente De La Barquera we crossed the Ría de Tina Mayor estuary and crossed out of Cantabria and back into Asturias.

Cantabria 008

More posts about Antoni Gaudi:

Catalonia, Barcelona and Antoni Gaudi

Alternative Twelve Treasures of Spain – Antoni Gaudi

Twelve Treasures of Spain, La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Park Guell, Barcelona

Northern Spain – The Caves at Altimira

Santillana del Mar in the rain

“I visited the Cave of Altamira while traveling in Europe with two friends in 1968.  Once inside, I was of course in awe, not only of the age of the paintings, but also of the delicacy and skill with which they had been executed. I think we tend to look down on our distant ancestors as primitive and stupid, but cave paintings like those at Altamira remind us that they were not.”                         Susan (Washington) – Blogger

On the final morning of our visit to Santillana del Mar the weather proved to be a disappointment, I could hear rain on the window as I started to stir and when I did the weather check I could only report back that the sky was grey and it was drizzling.

At breakfast our host confirmed the worst and informed us that the forecast was gloomy all day so we decided that it was probably a good day to go and do something undercover and perhaps visit a museum.

After breakfast we settled up and said goodbye and took the road out of Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Well, you learn something new every day it seems!

Altimira cave painting

Around thirteen thousand years ago a rockfall sealed the cave entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.  Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.

So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it wasn’t until 1902 that they were eventually accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.  Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and smoke from Fortuna cigarettes and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982.

altamira[1]

Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.  It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

And, let me tell you, these people were really good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects.

The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and hand prints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm.

Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

The entrance to the real cave is not so impressive however…

Entrance to the cave of Altamira

Northern Spain – Santillana del Mar

Santillana de Mar Cantabria

“Le plus joli village d’Espagne”  Jean Paul Sartre

Having visited Santillana del Mar once before, we were fairly confident of the directions and we arrived in the town and made our way to the free car park at the edge of the medieval centre. This place is overwhelmed by visitors in peak season and is entirely pedestrianised but it was quiet today and the summer restrictions didn’t appear to apply quite so rigidly but even so I wasn’t prepared to risk a fine so we then carried on by foot into the labyrinth of streets into the centre.

Santillana del Mar is a most picturesque town and often appears in any top ten of best villages in Spain along with Cudillero, Almagro, Ronda, Trujillo and Alcala de Henares.  This may of course have something to do with the fact that the French writer, philosopher and all-round clever dick, Jean Paul Sartre declared it to be the prettiest village in Spain in 1938, although I am not absolutely sure just how much of Spain he visited and just what he was comparing it with or how he came to this rather sweeping judgement.  Perhaps it was just a lucky guess!

Actually, I might be inclined to agree with him because the route to our hotel took us along uneven cobbled streets past yellow stone buildings with terracotta pantile roofs, stone walls, hidden gardens and tempting twisting alleys.  I may have been inclined to follow them but Kim wasn’t because, and I have to agree with her, it was a bit of a chore dragging our luggage over the bumpy surface and it made sense to go directly to our accommodation.

The Hotel Altimira was a delightful old seventeenth century grand house with stone walls, wooden floors and creaky rustic furniture and, unlike in Burgos, we were allocated a room at the front with a stone balcony and iron balustrade which allowed excellent views in both directions along the main street.

Santillana del Mar Spain

It was mid to late afternoon and we were both rather hungry so we went straight away to a restaurant that we had used previously, the Castilla, selected some tapas dishes and waited for service – and waited and waited and waited!  I realise that it was the end of the lunch time shift and the staff were looking forward to a short break but these guys were really rude and showed no enthusiasm to serve us.  As a result we abandoned the idea of food and a single drink and moved on.

Santillana is not an especially large town and there are only a couple of streets running from top to bottom so we walked slowly to the bottom of the town past half timbered houses and stone colonnades and to the well at the very bottom outside the Church of the Colegiata with its crumbling stone facade and slightly neglected appearance.  There is apparently an old saying that Santillana del Mar is The Town of Three Lies, since it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana) and has no sea (Mar) as implied by the town’s name. However, the name actually derives from Santa Juliana (or Santa Illana) whose remains are in the kept in the Colegiata, a Romanesque church and former Benedictine monastery.

From the outside the church is a Romanesque masterpiece, squat but elegant, grey but welcoming, informal but grand, austere but inviting with weathered sandsone walls and sinewy arcades where it is easy to imagine merchants conducting business before worship

We had visited the church on our last visit and as there was an entrance fee we declined the opportunity for a return and walked instead around the back and towards the edge of the town past more grand villas, grand wooden doors and weathered stone statues and when we had reached the very edge of the town we walked back along a road that ran parallel and returned us to the Plaza Mayor and the small town museum which we visited largely on account of the fact that there was free admission.

Finding a shop was the next priority and this was quite difficult.  I was beginning to despair that we wouldn’t find one but eventually we came across a mini-market just outside the town centre and took possession of a bottle of red wine and some San Miguel and with essential supplies secured returned to the room.

An hour or so later as we were preparing to go out for dinner there was suddenly a lot of happy music from somewhere outside and it was clear that it was getting closer.  From our balcony we could see a gathering of people and a fun band of musicians in blow up suits advancing along the street and right underneath our window.  I have no idea what it was all about but the music was nice and the children all seemed to be enjoying the festival atmosphere.

There was now a debate about evening meal and whether or not we should return to the Castilla but we eventually decided to forgive them for their bad manners earlier in the afternoon and we returned for dinner and we were glad that we did because the food was excellent, the service first class and the atmosphere perfect.

As it turned out the room on the front of the Hotel Altimira was rather noisy on account of looking out over the street and the wooden floorboards which creaked every time someone in the hotel turned over in bed but it didn’t matter at all, it was a charming place and we were glad to be there.

Next morning the weather was disappointing again and it reminded me of childhood holidays to Wales or Norfolk – grey skies and anoraks.  Kim upset the breakfast staff over the issue of hot water that wasn’t hot – in Spain there is a general failure to understand how important this is to a proper cup of tea and so after the meal and with a promise of better weather to the west we checked out of the hotel and began our final drive along the Cantabrian coast and back to Asturias airport.

Church Santillana del Mar

 

Northern Spain – Mountain Drive, Burgos to Cantabria

Cantabria Road Hazard

Not long after leaving Burgos and as we travelled north the landscape began to change.  Only gradually at first and then more rapidly as we approached the snow capped Cantabrian Mountains.

The endless brown prairies of Castilla y León started to slowly give way to enclosed green fields of Cantabria and now there were ridges and escarpments each one playing host to a clutch of wind turbines.  There was livestock in the fields as we began to climb, gently at first and then more dramatically into the mountains.

After an hour or so we left the main road and took a minor route into the mountains where the fields became smaller, the grass became greener and the sky seemed a great deal closer as we drove past verges of wild flowers sheltering under the dry stone walls, soaring buzzards and occasional herds of the horses of Cantabria.  We climbed high into the clouds, way above the snow line with strips of ice clinging defiantly to the crevices where the sun doesn’t reach and stopping frequently to enjoy the stunning views stretching away in all directions as we reached the highest point of our drive at one thousand two hundred and sixty metres.

There was a price to pay for these grand views and that was the temperature which dropped so dangerously close to zero that Kim made a change of clothes into something much warmer and more appropriate for the prevailing conditions.

At the very top the grey clouds were crawling like a contagion over the mountain tops and then as quickly as we had started to climb we started to descend through a succession of sweeping theatrical bends where bubbling waterfalls twisted and roared down every narrow gorge and overhead there was a canopy of swaying emerald which parted just now and again to let the sunlight through and allow views of the mountain peaks wearing their lace bonnets of cloud.

The road kept dropping in a dramatic fall, through hairpin bends, alongside vertiginous drops to certain death in the river valley below and adjacent to soaring grey mountains and constant warnings of rock falls and debris in the road and this wasn’t the only danger because, although there was an absence of traffic we frequently found ourselves competing for road space with local farm livestock which thankfully announced their presence with a loud clanging cow bell.

Valle de Cabuérniga Cantabria Spain

Eventually the road began to level out and we followed the route of a river valley, the Valle de Cabuérniga with the River Argoza carving its relentless way through the hills as we made for our first stop of the day, the Cantabrian mountain village of Bárcena Mayor which is a village nestled in the mountains and the only residential community within the beech wood nature reserve of Saja.

It is said to be the oldest town in Cantabria and was declared a historic-artistic site in 1979.  Because of this designation it is now one of the most visited places in Cantabria as tour buses fill the road and the edge of town car park but it was quiet enough today and we walked through the pretty medieval stone streets and houses with wooden balconies and washing lines in a hanging mist which added to the character and the charm of the place.

We left Bárcena Mayor just as the intrusive tour buses started to arrive and spill their passengers into the narrow streets and then carried on to our second village visit at Carmona sitting in an impossibly attractive natural fold in the landscape surrounded by lush green fields and with a stunning backdrop of the Pico de Europa.

Carmona Cantabria Spain

Carmona was rather similar to Bárcena Mayor except there was a bit more activity in the tiny cobbled streets with wild flower verges and where sunlight spilled into the dark  corners of the workshops where traditional wood carvers were busy making customary products of cattle yokes, sandals, clogs, canes, and cutlery which, I am told, are distinctive to rural Cantabria and I say that in a slightly cynical way because I got the impression that there isn’t really a great deal of tradition here and that whilst a man was busy whittling wood in an open barn for the benefit of the tourists there was probably a factory somewhere full of drills and lathes where the products for sale were being produced as the villagers were taking advantage of the new roads that brought the visitors to the once isolated communities.

I liked these little stone villages but not that much that I wanted to stay all afternoon and after we had walked through the streets, admired the wooden merchandise and dodged the free roaming dogs we returned to the car and made our way to our final overnight stop at the town of Santillana del Mar.

Carmona 09

Northern Spain – The Plaza Mayor and an Updated Top Ten

Cities of Castilla y Leon

Tomorrow we would be returning to the coast in Cantabria and so now we had come to end of our drive through Castilla y León and our visit to the main cities although, and I apologise for this, we had missed out Soria.

It would have been just too much of a detour as we came to the end of our travels but I have promised to go back one day and apologise for this rudeness because Soria has one of the most bizarre festivals in Spain where once a year local men demonstrate their faith and fearlessness (stupidity) by walking over red hot coals!

We had visited a lot of new cities and it was time now to reassess our top ten list of favourite Plaza Mayors.  The more places we visit the more difficult this becomes so I have now extended this list from five to ten and introduced two categories – cities and towns.

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

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 Castilla-La Mancha

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.

Valladolid Spain

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.  These were all from previous visits to Spain but we both agreed that after this journey 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!

And so to the towns: the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo and 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 a couple of San Miguels and two dishes of olives but once we had finished we drained our glasses and returned to the Meson del Cid to prepare for a second night in the town.

Chinchon Madrid Spain

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

 

Northern Spain – Pilgims and the Way of Saint James

Pilgrims' way Santiago de Compostella

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Burgos lies on one of the principal pilgrim routes of the Camino or the Way of Saint James and during our visit we had to share the streets and the restaurants and the hotel with dozens of foot weary walkers all sharing their hiking tales as they walked towards their ultimate objective – the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and it was the European City of Culture for the year 2000.  I didn’t know this but after Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great.  Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout follower of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa arrested and (according to the story) personally beheaded him (this seems rather unlikely to me) in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body by boat back to the peninsula (this also seems rather unlikely).

On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago and the holy saint became a warrior.

Santiago Pilgrim

People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here in Burgos who could be instantly identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell.   The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination.  It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

I have been giving some thought to perhaps tackling the Camino myself one day and have been looking at the various different routes.  I have to say that I may have a preference for the one that starts in Plymouth in the UK because that would seem to include rather a nice cruise on a P&O ferry across the Bay of Biscay and an evening in the duty free bar followed by a just short stroll from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela.

Way of St James

St James the Apostle is the Patron saint of Spain and if El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago.  In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes wrote – ‘St. James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had … has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.’  Since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means St James and strike for Spain has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

The truth was that as the Northern Kingdoms began to assert themselves they needed spiritual assistance and justification and in this era of crusading reconquest there was a need for the living presence of a religious-national figure as an emblem of Christian strength and supremacy that was capable of rallying around themselves the Spanish Christian forces.   This was to be Santiago whose image fulfilled the desire of the Iberian Christians for heroes to emulate, and unite them in their struggle for political and religious independence from Muslim rule.

An important manifestation of the crusading mentality during this time was the creation of an iconic patriotic creation of Santiago and the mythical military contribution of St James to the Reconquista was the inspirational presence of the Saint on the battlefields of the peninsula.

The most famous of these was the legend surrounding the battle of Clavijo in 844, where the vastly outnumbered and demoralised Christian forces were inspired by the appearance of St James in a full suit of armour riding on a galloping white horse with a sword in the right hand and the banner of victory in the left.

Modern historians dispute that there ever was such a battle but the story goes that the night before the encounter, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims.  The following day, at the height of battle, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield, leaving behind him the defeated infidels that he has slaughtered and crushed to the ground and in front of him what remained of the terrified enemy promptly surrendered.  Thus was born the legend of Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.

Burgos Pilgrims Weary

Northern Spain – The City of Burgos

Burgos Cathedral

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Burgos and we located the hotel without too much difficulty and checked in.  I had chosen the Meson Del Cid because of its location and because the hotel web site boasted about the panoramic views of the Cathedral.

Unfortunately our room didn’t have a panoramic view of the Cathedral as we were allocated a room at the rear with a view of a tiny courtyard and the back door of an adjacent church and I immediately decided (perhaps unfairly) that this was most likely going to adversely affect my customer review scoring.

I was especially keen to visit Burgos because the first time I was there in 1985 I dashed through with indecent haste on a road trip from the Algarve to the English Channel and at that point we were seriously behind our schedule and didn’t have time to stop but mostly because this is the spiritual home of my Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar, better known as El Cid.

There was time for a brief excursion into the city but with a full day ahead in Burgos we ignored the sights and looked instead for a likely restaurant for later.  The one that we selected served a nice evening meal, but not the best that we had had this week and our mistake was not to have the menu del dia which was being served up by the plateful to the pilgrims who made their way inside.

El Cid Alvar Fanez Burgos

My way of getting our own back on the hotel for the disappointing room was to boycott their expensive breakfast at €11 each and instead found a good alternative at only €4 each just around the corner in a place with the tempting aromas of the first meal of the day, pungent coffee, sizzling eggs, newly fried churros and the faint hint of charred toast.

It was a rather cold morning and stubborn grey clouds filled the morning sky, the walkers were all wearing their warmest clothes and most people on the street were taking the sensible precaution of carrying an umbrella.  We walked first to the Plaza Mayor which isn’t going to get into my favourites list because although it was large and colourful the place was spoilt by the inappropriate placement of recycling containers where, in my opinion, there should have been pavement tables.

From the Plaza we walked to the river through one of the original city gates, the Arco de Santa Maria, and then along a boulevard, Paseo del Espolón, lined with trees like lines of Greek dancers each with their hands on their partners shoulders and from there towards the Plaza del Cid.

Greek Dancer Trees Burgos

Once over the river we crossed a bridge lined with statues depicting the heroes of the Reconquesta and then, there he was – El Cid, looking fearsome with his grizzled beard, wild cloak flowing madly, his sword La Tizona, too big for an ordinary mortal extended menacingly ahead of him, his eyes fixed ferociously on an enemy army as he led a charge against the Moors sat on his magnificent famous white horse Babieca.

Only one other statue is the equal of this one in all of Spain – that of Francisco Pizarro more than five hundred kilometres away in the Plaza Mayor in the city of Trujillo  in Extremadura.

El Cid and Babieca

It was time now to visit the Cathedral, the third largest in Spain after Seville and Toledo and we walked to the great Gothic construction with its balustraded turrets, needle-pointed pinnacles, statues of the Saints and steel grey filigree lace towers soaring above us, went inside and grudgingly paid the €7 entrance fee.

Actually this turned out to be very good value for money because I would agree with the travel writer Jan Morris that this is perhaps the finest Cathedral that I have visited in Spain, better than both Seville and Toledo and with an audio guide thrown in.  It took some time to visit all of the chapels on both sides and eventually reach the centre of the building with its huge grey columns reaching up above us supporting a magnificent ribbed central dome where underneath in pride of place was the resting place and tomb of El Cid and his equally famous wife Doña Ximena Díaz  Actually I was expecting something a bit grander but the great National hero of Spain is buried under a rather simple marble gravestone.

El Cid Burgos

Through the magnificent stained glass windows we could see that there were occasional shafts of sunlight so with the weather improving Kim began to get restless so we hurried our pace for the remainder of the visit but I did manage to slow her down long enough to visit the Cathedral museum where amongst the exhibits were the travel chest of El Cid, which I am fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to use as Ryanair cabin baggage and a blood thirsty statue of Saint James the Moor slayer.

These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a similar statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.

St James 01

A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement explained that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ.  It might also be a case of political correctness.  In 1990 there were one hundred thousand Muslims living in Spain but by 2010 this had risen to over one million.

Burgos Cathedral on the other hand, for the time being anyway, appears not to be so sensitive.

Burgos Pilgrims Weary

With the sun now shining we returned to the streets and walked along a steep path through pleasant woodland towards the castle of Burgos.  There was once a medieval castle on the site but the current fort was built by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, was the only castle that the Duke of Wellington failed to capture and which was destroyed again by the French when they retreated and left in 1813.  It has been restored again now but opening hours seem to be very limited and today the iron gates were firmly closed and locked so we walked back to the city and returned to the river and walked in both directions before selecting a pavement bar on the Paseo del Espolón  and sat in the hot sunshine with a San Miguel.

I liked Burgos, probably most out of all the cities that we had visited this week and I was glad that we had chosen to spend a couple of nights here.  Later we found an alternative restaurant for evening meal where the food was excellent and we were in the good company of some Camino walkers and at the end of the day there was a walk back to the hotel through the quiet streets under the waxy glow of the iron street lamps casting their curious shadows into the corners of the Plazas and streets and overhead there was a clear sky which made us optimistic about the next day.

Plaza Major Burgos Spain

Northern Spain – The City of Palencia

Palencia Spain

” 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 only a short drive from Valladolid to Palencia and we easily negotiated the traffic and found our way to a car park close to the city centre where we immediately came across a pleasant pavement café where we stopped for coffee and to take time to find our bearings.

We were close to the city’s covered market so we started there and admired the meat and the fish and the vegetables and once more enviously compared this to markets in England and take it from me, although I concede that Market Street in Morrisons is a nice idea, it simply cannot compare to an experience such as this.

Our next objective was to find the historical centre and without a map we blundered off in the wrong direction and when this became obvious I stopped someone and asked for directions.  Now, I know that like most English people my grasp of foreign languages is not that good but this experience was bizarre.

Catedral?” I enquired and the poor man (victim) that I had selected just stared back at me with an expressionless face as though I was a visitor from the planet Mars.  So I tried again but this time, remembering that upside down question mark thing at the beginning of the sentence I tried to sound a bit more Spanish, ¿Catedral?” but his face went so blank that I though rigor mortis had set in.  I have to say that Catedral sounds a bit like Cathedral to me so I don’t know why this was so difficult but his solution was to call someone else over who was an obviously educated man who spoke excellent English and with optimism I tried again ¿Catedral?”

To my horror he adopted exactly the same blank face as the first man so I tried again in various different accents and voice inflections. ¿Catedral?”  “¿Catedral?”  “¿Catedral?”  Nothing, Nothing, Nothing.  I really cannot understand why this should be so difficult.  If a Spanish man came up to me in Lincoln and asked for directions to the Cathedral – however he might pronounce it, I am fairly sure that I could make out what he was asking for!   Eventually I gave up, added the h sound and just asked in English for directions to the Cathedral and amazingly I immediately made myself understood and the man smiled and said “Ah, Catedral!” which, I am fairly certain is exactly what I said in the first place and then having cleared up this little confusing matter he went on to give very clear and very precise directions.

Palencia Cathedral

This reminded me of my last previous experience of failing to make myself understood, this time in Merida in Extremadura.

There was a man on the pavement just watching the world go by and minding his own business so I asked him a straightforward one word question, “¿Supermercardo?”  As on this occasion his face drained of blood and went curiously shocked and I think that sudden panic came over him that happens to us all when someone speaks to us in a foreign language when we are not expecting it, or applies an unfamiliar accent to our own, and he was completely thrown off balance.  He frantically looked around for assistance but there was none so he shrugged his shoulders and rattled off some words in machine gun Spanish which I took to mean that he wasn’t sure, he was uncomfortable being accosted by foreigners and that we should leave him alone.

We decided to walk on and within twenty metres we were outside a huge ‘Discount Supermercardo’ and I don’t think I could have been so unintelligible that he couldn’t have understood that this was exactly what we were looking for.

I think I might give up with attempts at foreign language and just go back to shouting!

Anyway, with these instructions we found first the Plaza Mayor which is going to go straight into my top ten.  It was wonderful, white stoned and colonnaded and delightfully shaded by those curiously gnarled plane trees that are planted around the perimeter.  It was classy and busy but without the tourist shops and cafés that rather spoilt Salamanca and I could have stayed much longer but we needed to find the Cathedral (Catedral) so we walked on along immaculate streets with boxed balconies in various pastel shades and then came to the wide open Plaza de la Immaculada and the impressive Gothic Cathedral which sadly for me but happily for Kim was now closed for the afternoon.

Palencia Plaza Major

This wasn’t too disappointing because this now gave us more time to seek out the Canal de Castilla which has a basin and a wharf in Palencia and we found it by crossing the river and walking through some old dilapidated warehouses.

The Canal de Castilla is a waterway in the north of Spain that was constructed during the last half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century that runs across the high plain of Castilla and is one of the country’s few canals.  It was built to facilitate the wheat grain transport from Castile to the northern harbours on the Bay of Biscay. However, there is a familiar story because when railroads were built in northern Spain in the nineteenth century, the canal became superfluous and redundant and was converted into the spine of a huge irrigation system due to its relative inefficiency as a means of transport.

It reminded me somewhat of the Canal du Midi in the South of France with limpid, slow moving water and the dappled shade of towpath trees and we ambled for a while along the northern bank.

The trouble with canal tow paths is that this is where people who love dogs take them for a walk, off the leash, where they can terrify people who don’t like dogs and today was no exception.  The problem with approaching hounds is that there is nowhere to go when they come along bothering and snarling and dribbling in that objectionable canine way and the only way to avoid being sniffed, salivated, or bitten is to jump into the water.  Dog owners are generally so insensitive to people like me who are just simply afraid of them.  “He won’t hurt you” they say,“he’s only trying to be friendly”  they reassure but they almost all fail to understand that some of us just don’t like the darned things!

We left the canal tow path thankfully without being mauled to death and the meandered back through the centre of the city.  Kim didn’t share my enthusiasm for waiting until the Cathedral reopened at four o’clock and so we returned to the car and continued our journey towards Burgos.

 

Northern Spain – The City of Valladolid

Valladolid Spain

“The celebrated plateresque façades of Valladolid strike me as being, when one has recovered from the riotous shock of them, actually edible.”                              Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

The road to Valladolid and Palencia was just as dreary as the previous roads through Castilla y León as we entered the Tierra de Campos, an expansive fertile and arable farmland area, over seven hundred metres above sea level and to the traveller a vast desolate plain with virtually nothing but flat fields and open sky.

The road drifted north through a succession of characterless towns and villages but for naturalist entertainment they were flanked by swaying verges decorated with wild flowers – regal purple thistles, rigid and erect, sunshine yellow low-level daisies, shy and demure and blood red poppies, showing off and bending and bowing in the breeze like obedient courtiers.

The route today provided the opportunity for a short detour to the high plain town of Medina del Campo which had an especially fine castle.  Medina del Campo gained much influence  during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because of its commercial and economic importance.  The main basis of this was banking, wool and textiles and in 1489 a great trade agreement united the Kingdoms of Spain and England with the reduction of trade tariffs, the recognition of France as a common enemy and the arrangement of the marriage of Catherine of Aragon to King Henry VII’s son, Prince Arthur – and after him to King Henry VIII which was the catalyst of tumultuous and irreversible religious reform in Tudor England.

As the medieval town slipped gradually from importance into obscurity over the next four hundred years the castle was abandoned and collapsed, but was restored after the Spanish Civil War with reconstruction pursued and financed by the Falange government of Francisco Franco, who had a nostalgia for structures having links to the Catholic Monarchs.  We walked around the castle and went inside but there wasn’t a great deal to see and I was disappointed that it wasn’t possible to climb the tower.

Medina del Campo Spain

Then Kim dropped a bombshell – she told me that she wasn’t that bothered about climbing towers anyway and this was on top of her announcement last year that she had had quite enough of Roman ruins.  I said not to worry because there would be a cathedral later and she said that actually, she wasn’t that bothered about them either.  Well, talk about kick a man while he is down and I felt guilty for a while that she had been feigning interest in all of the things that I like to do whilst at the same time I hadn’t bothered to show even the slightest glimmer of interest in shoe shops and jewellers!

And so we moved on…

The road took us past the town of Tordesillas but we didn’t stop to investigate.  It seems that the most famous thing about Tordesillas is that there was a meeting here between Spain and Portugal in 1494 and a Treaty was signed which gave Brazil to Portugal and all the rest to Spain.  This might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it rates as a serious negotiating disaster for Spain as it gave up the Amazon rain forest and all of its riches for the Andes of Patagonia!  This lack of bargaining skill must be similar to me own disastrous attempts at bartering in a Turkish bazaar.

It was still quite early so shortly after crossing the Duero for the final time, and as we were passing, it seemed impolite not to visit the city of Valladolid so we left the motorway and as the red poppies of the highway verges gave way to the red concrete of the city suburbs we headed for the centre.

Valladolid is a very crimson city, the reddest that I have ever seen, a sprawling industrial metropolis, the capital of Castilla y León, the tenth largest city in Spain but with its medieval heart ripped out and trodden under foot in the post civil war industrial boom and it does not feature on many tourist itineraries even though it was the city where Christopher Columbus spent his last years and died after falling out with the Spanish Monarchy over the question of royalties.

For a big city there was surprisingly little traffic and we followed signs to the centre and the Plaza Mayor and made our way to a convenient underground car park right below the main square.

It was midday now and  the expansive Plaza was really very attractive and all decorated and carefully colour coordinated in various complimentary shades of cream, scarlet and and crimson and to compliment the vivid colour scheme the sun was blazing down from above and made the whole place feel warm and hospitable.

We didn’t plan to stay long in Valladolid, it isn’t the sort of place that fills many pages of the Dorling Kindersley travel guide but because we were so close it seemed like a good idea. Our next stop was Palencia and there was just time to walk the main shopping street, admire some fine art nouveau buildings and have a snack and a drink in a café in the Plaza before it was time to go and return to the road. We felt a bit rude leaving so quickly but if we pass by again we shall pay it the courtesy of staying longer.

Valladolid_2