‘Spain is Spain…and in being Spanish consists its originality, its raciness, its novelty, its idiosyncracy’. Richard Ford
Since early 2009, as part of our own Grand Tour of Europe, we have been drawn time and again to the Iberian Peninsula in search of the real Spain and in November we returned once more, flying to Madrid and planning a short three night stay in the city of Ávila about one hundred kilometres north west of the capital city.
Spain was not, generally, part of the traditional European Grand Tour and until the twentieth century only caught the attention of the braver or more rugged of travellers and writers. For many it was too primitive, too mountainous and just too dangerous, prone to violent upheavals, inhospitable weather and without acceptable restaurants or decent amenities. ‘To travel in Spain you need three francs a day and a gun’ said one Frenchman who accompanied Alexander Dumas on a mid nineteenth century trip to the peninsular. For the sons and daughters of the English Aristocracy Spain did not have the sophisticated allure of France, the Renaissance treasures of Italy or even the ancient charm of Greece and very few people ever considered crossing the Pyrenees into a land perceived to be full of fanatical Jesuit priests and lurid tales of bandits and cut-throats.
What a pity because, as I have now discovered over the past two years, they were passing up on the opportunities of marvelling at Baroque Seville, the Hanging Houses of Cuenca, the walled fortresses of Ávila and Ciudad Rodrigo, the historic cities of Toledo and Salamanca, the numerous Royal Palaces that surround Madrid and the rich heritage of Roman and Moorish Spain with the largest remaining Roman aqueduct at Segovia and what was once the second largest Mosque in the World at Cordoba.
Right up until the 1950s Spain was considered to be a place for the courageous because it was different and mysterious with a hostile geography, haughty aristocratic grandees and destitute peasants, Romany gypsies and blood thirsty customs. In his account of living in Andalusia in the 1930, Gerald Brenan talks often about highway robbers (South of Granada). Travellers and visitors were often inclined not to regard it as part of Europe at all and it was often considered, on account of its Moorish heritage, dark skinned people and unfamiliar customs, as part of Africa or of the east. The Spanish themselves understood this perception of their peninsular and in the 1960s “Spain is different“ used to be the slogan of Spain’s international tourism campaign.
Sadly, even today, for many, Spain means only a fortnight’s karaoke holiday spread out on the golden sands of the Costas with a bottle of sun cream and a jug of sangria without any real attempt to understand the geography, the history or the culture of the country. But for those with imagination and an appetite for an experience of real Spain then the airports of Valladolid, Seville, Santander and Madrid are the places to begin a quest to find the Spain of the shrines, the Spain of the Knights-errant, the Spain of the Mosques, castles and mighty cathedrals as well as the Spain of the real castanet clicking flamenco dancers, Spanish guitars and matadors and bull fights as opposed to the ersatz versions of the holiday resorts.
The Easyjet plane flew over the Spanish coast at Santander and we could see the snow capped Picos de Europa Mountains soaring majestically through the low cloud which then immediately closed in and smothered northern Spain and Castilla y Leon completely. The land was completely obscured from view breaking only over the peaks of the Sierra Guadarrama and briefly revealing mountain towns and villages, rivers and shimmering blue reservoirs. A few minutes later around mid morning we landed in a misty Madrid where the temperature was struggling to reach double figures and after the formalities of border control went straight to the Sixt car rental desk.
Since my complaint about Sixt and winter tyre charges in Germany earlier in the year I have been in regular correspondence with the Company Customer Services Manager for the UK and this led to the issue of a Sixt platinum account which gives me certain privileges such as discounted prices, speedy pick up service and on this occasion an upgrade from a Volkswagen to a BMW and we were delighted when we took possession of a shiny white 1 series, left the airport and pointed it in the direction of the mountains and the sunshine.