” 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.
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.
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.