Category Archives: Travel

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 or its celebrated ornate front door 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 miserable cold morning and immovable grey clouds filled the 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 then 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 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

The weather stubbornly refused to improve so we decided that it was time 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.

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.

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.

Saint James is in danger of becoming a bit of a Nigel Farage!  Burgos Cathedral on the other hand, for the time being anyway, appears not to be so sensitive.

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

 

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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

 

Northern Spain – The City of Ávila

Avila Postcard Map

“When you approach (Ávila) 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’ 

As we drove further south into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat high plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, lakes and rivers and snow capped mountains.  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 eleven hundred metres 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 became lost and confused.  Just as things were beginning to lookcompletely 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.

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.  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 wonderful hotel with a large internal courtyard, grand wooden balconies, sumptuous furniture and an exceptional room.

Avila City Walls

The next morning after breakfast 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 intended (i.e. worship) 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.

We walked outside of the old city walls and 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 satisfying and we sat for a while and enjoyed it.  It was peaceful and serene and I felt unusually contented.

Avila City Walls

Later we went back into the city to walk the walls, which (according to the guide book) 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.  They are two and a half kilometres 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.

We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate entrances 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 a friendly sort of place 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!

Avila Spain

 

Northern Spain – The City of Salamanca

Salamanca Province

“And nothing in Europe better expresses a kind of academic festiveness than the celebrated Plaza Mayor…. Its arcaded square is gracefully symmetrical, its manner is distinguished and among the medallions of famous Spaniards that decorate its façade there have been left spaces for heroes yet to come.”             Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

If the evening meal at the hotel Conventa Spa was exceptionally good then so too was the breakfast the following morning with a full spread presented with no expense spared for only a handful of guests.

Today we were making a second visit to the city of Salamanca to follow up our first in November 2009 when a misty overcast day had not presented the city in the best light.  We were hoping for blue skies today as we drove south along theruta de plata the old Roman road, the silver route, so named because this was how Rome moved its precious treasure north from the silver and tin mines further south.

The road bypassed Zamora and then there was nothing of great interest to tell you about for sixty kilometres or so because the truth is that the landscape of this part of Castilla y León is rather tedious and quite forgettable with vast dry plains stretching away into infinity in all directions.

It seems that we are destined not to see Salamanca in fine weather because this morning it was grey and rather cool as we approached the city with its backdrop of snow capped mountains, the Sierra de Gredos and then made our final approach to the city and made our way to a car park close to the Plaza Mayor.

It was still misty even though the sun was struggling to break through as we walked through cobbled streets and buildings of rich caramel coloured Villamayor stone and directly to the centre of the city.  From there around the University buildings and through the public library and after that the centre of the city and the inevitable Plaza Mayor where, because it was too chilly to sit at a pavement café, groups of men were wandering around deep in conversation discussing the important matters of the day.  They were all elderly men of course because just as Gerald Brenan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

The Plaza is located in the very centre of Salamanca and was built in the traditional Spanish baroque style and is a popular gathering area. It is lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops and in the centre stands the proud city hall. It is considered the heart of the city and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful plazas in Spain.

Previously I had not really appreciated its grandness or beauty but now that I was made aware that it is one of the most important Baroque monuments in Spain and the city’s historical timeline I was able to reassess my previous judgement and it might now get into my top ten but I will come to that in a later post.

As we sat at a pavement café with a coffee the weather began to improve, the cloud lifted a little and some weak sunshine started to leak through the white shroud but we still did not consider it fine enough to climb the cathedral tower, as was our intention, so after we had finished we walked to the 1st Century Roman Bridge across the River Tormes, which was flowing north towards the Duero and from there back to the city centre stopping on the way at the site of the archives of the Spanish Civil War.

The original documents were assembled by the Francoist regime, selectively obtained from the administrative departments of various institutions and organizations during the Spanish Civil War as a repressive instrument used against opposition groups and where today there was a temporary poignant exhibition of children’s drawings depicting the conflict.

Salamanca Roman Bridge and Cathedrals

It was lunch time now so the next task was to find somewhere amongst the huge choice of bars and bodegas to find somewhere suitable but we didn’t have to concern ourselves too greatly with this because our minds were made up for us when a young student stopped us and forced a card into our hands and directed us to a bar down an old town side street.  There was something in her smile that said if you present this card I will be paid some commission and it was impossible to refuse.

After a pavement lunch of beer and complimentary tapas we were forced to concede that the weather was not going to improve any further so there was no putting off the visit to the cathedral any longer.  I should say cathedrals because Salamanca has two, an old one and a new one that are joined together into one massive structure.  We paid €3.50 each for tickets (no increase since 2009) to visit and then commenced a tour of the towers and the balconies that involved an awful lot of spiral staircases.  It was a spectacular building and well worth the money but it was a pity about the weather because the drab overcast sky and persistent patches of mist spoilt what would certainly have been spectacular views from the top.

Salamanca Cathedral SpacemanBack at street level we circumnavigated the Cathedral looking for one of its most famous stone carvings.  Built between 1513 and 1733, the Gothic Cathedral underwent restoration work in 1992 and it is a generally a tradition of cathedral builders and restorers to add details or new carvings to the façade  as a sort of signature. In this case the Cathedral authorities gave the go-ahead to add some more modern images  including an astronaut floating among some vines. Despite there being clear documentation of the astronaut being a recent addition, the spaceman has already fuelled wild ideas of ancient space travel, and medieval alien interventions.  We found the astronaut but not the other recently added images of a dragon eating ice cream, a lynx, a bull, and a crayfish.

It was now late afternoon and time to leave the ancient university city of Salamanca, the city that is regarded as the true home of the purest form of the Spanish language and we dawdled a while through the Plaza Mayor for a second time today before returning to the car and moving on.

 

Northern Spain – The City of Zamora and the Hotel Conventa Spa

Zamora Spain

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s Zamora!                    When the World seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine that’s Zamora!”  Warren &  Brooks with a revisionist contribution from the author.

The journey from León to Zamora was a hundred and twenty kilometres and took just about an hour and to be honest that was long enough because it seemed to me to be just miles and miles of bugger all. We drove through several towns and villages that all seemed to be abandoned and we began to worry about the lack of supplies.  It was so boring in fact that Kim fell asleep and didn’t wake until I poked her to wake her up because I was in need of navigation assistance as we approached our destination.

We weren’t staying in Zamora but a few kilometres outside in the town of Coreses at the Hotel Conventa Spa I.  The most urgent task now was to find a shop for some beer and wine but the town was completely closed.  Eventually we came across a little shop but the assistants were busy locking the doors and closing the shutters and when we asked about the possibility of reopening later they looked at us as though we were mad and said (I think they said) that they were going to a village fiesta and each of them raised a couple of sticks, that they all seemed to be carrying, to confirm this.

And so we carried on to the Hotel Convento Spa which seemed absurdly huge for such a tiny town and as we drove into the car park I began to question my hotel booking judgement. It was like a giant motel and in the gardens was a replica Greek temple, Doric columns and huge statues which we assumed were used for wedding parties.  There were no more than ten cars in the car park and I was minded to abandon it and move on but Kim was a lot calmer than me and persuaded me to go inside.

Well, what a shock!  Once inside the hotel reception we were transported into a fantasy world of a Royal Palace and I might have been temporarily convinced that I was at San Ildifonsa o la Granja and that King Juan Carlos might come striding through the opulent furnishings of the drawing room to greet me.  The place was a real surprise – someone had gone to a lot of trouble to create a Royal Palace in the middle of the dusty high plain of Castile and I almost in a state of shock.  What a wonderful place, a Disney World like experience where everything was of the highest quality and I felt like an honoured guest of the Spanish nobility.

There was however still the problem of no wine so once we had familiarised ourselves with the place and rejected the mini bar selection on the basis of price we decided to go straight away into the city of Zamora.

Zamora is only a small city for a provincial capital, close to the border with Portugal and situated on the river Duero (Duoro in Portugal) and most famous for having the greatest number of Romanesque churches of any city in Europe.

We parked the car in an underground car park (Spain seems to really like underground car parks) and then we walked along a main shopping street where every shop was closed (phew!) until we reached the Plaza Mayor where all of Zamora seemed to be out tonight enjoying the early evening sunshine. We selected a pavement table at a busy bar and watched as the single waitress on duty struggled to cope with the sheer number of customers until we were finally able to attract her attention and order some drinks.

“By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls                                                            There’s a hidden door she leads you to                                                                           These days, she says,                                                                                                                         I feel my life just like a river running through”                                                                    Al Stewart – ‘The Year of the Cat’

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls pat–a-cake and skipping.  In the centre was a church with a statue dedicated to‘Holy Week’  and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into the intriguing shadows of the alleys and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.  What was noticeable was how well behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together.

As the sun began to dip and the shadows lengthened and our table fell into shade we settled our bill and walked to the Castle and the house where El Cid  is said to have lived after his marriage to Ximena  and then to the Cathedral but we were reluctant to go inside  because there was a service taking place so we peeked through the door and having satisfied ourselves that it wasn’t particularly exceptional (much to Kim’s obvious relief) we walked back the way we had come to the car and returned to the car via the bank of the River Duero  and then to the hotel Conventa Spa – where there was some excitement!

In the car park was a swanky coach which displayed livery that said that this was the team bus of Spanish La Liga football team Deportivo de La Coruña who were probably enjoying the spa facilities ahead of a team briefing.  I couldn’t help imagining that this might be like the film ‘Mike Bassett, England Manager’ and that the coach was inside somewhere explaining that tomorrow they would be playing “Quatro, Quarto, Jodienda Dos!”

We liked the Conventa Spa and were pleased that we would be staying there for two nights as we made our journey of discovery  through Castilla y León and we were even more pleased after we had an unexpectedly excellent meal (a chuleton of beef) in the restaurant for evening meal and then a wonderful breakfast in the morning before setting off for the city of Salamanca.

Zamora Spain

Northern Spain – The City of León

Leon cathedral Spain

The high plain of Castile levelled out at about eight hundred metres above sea level and then we entered a rather tedious section of road that took us to León via a rather circuitous ring road that looped around the south of the city before taking us back towards the centre.  We found an underground car park at the Plaza Mayor and then took the steps from the subterranean basement into the penetrating sunshine.

The pastel coloured, honey colonnaded Plaza was curiously quiet with an absence of shops, bars or restaurants but too be fair, despite the sunshine, it was probably a little too cool to set out the pavement tables so with nothing to stop for we made our way towards the historical centre and the Gothic French style cathedral.

We had been travelling now for quite a while and it was way past lunch time so before we looked for the Cathedral we stopped in a busy square lined with pavement restaurants and selected one with uneven tables rocking on the cobbles in the sunshine and waited for service.

There was quite a nice menu but no tortilla even though we had seen one inside on the bar.  When the waiter came to take our order we selected some items from the menu and told him that we would also like some omelette.  He explained that tortilla was only available inside and that we should select from the menu.  Kim tried to negotiate with him and to take him inside to show him what we wanted but he was very insistent, to the point of being down-right rude actually, that we couldn’t have the tortilla.

At this point I was minded to go inside and order a beer and a slice and then bring it outside to the table but after careful consideration it didn’t seem worth making a fuss.  To be fair it wasn’t just about us and he was very even-handed about the issue when he was equally forceful about refusing it to a young local Spanish couple.

Leon Spain

After our tortilla starved lunch we paid up without leaving a tip and moved off down a grubby side street with gaily coloured buildings with glass and elaborate timbered enclosed balconies until we arrived at another wide plaza with grand buildings.  In one corner was a magnificent grey turreted building, the Casa Botines, that resembled a castle with a statue of St George slaying the dragon over the front door and this turned out to be a creation of the Catalan architectAntoni Gaudi and one of only a handful outside of his home city of Barcelona.

Actually, there were an awful lot of very grand buildings in this plaza and they all turned out to be the headquarters of the principal Spanish banks.  Typical – the banks create the economic crisis across the Eurozone whilst at the same time ensuring that they own and occupy the best buildings in the city.  I imagined that staff behind the windows were looking down and laughing themselves silly while they counted their bonuses!

And so we returned to the shabby narrow streets with run down shops and decrepit mansions as we made our way to the cathedral.  My overall impression was that if Oviedo was neat and well maintained then León was untidy and in need of some tender loving care and a manicure.  On every street corner there was disfiguring graffiti and the place felt run down, uncared for and generally less affluent and then we reached the Cathedral, a great Gothic sandstone structure in the French style and we walked to the main doors.

They were closed!  This being Monday, León Cathedral seems to have caught the first day of the week closing habit which afflicts museums across Europe and so it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to see the interior of this fine place.  I’d like to tell you about the famous stained glass windows, the cloisters and the high soaring roofs but sadly I cannot and because we didn’t really have time to hang around we left the Cathedral square and made our way back to the car.

We have made this mistake before – stopping off somewhere on route to a final destination and not having enough time in the place to do it justice so I am going to refrain from making a judgement about León except to say that even if I was to return I doubt very much that it would become one of my favourites or make it into my top ten of Spanish cities – it isn’t even a UNESCO World Heritage Site (now, there is an idea for a blog post).

We left León and continued south towards the Province and city of Zamora across the ironing-board landscape of the overwhelmingly flat high plain, through arable fields with snow capped mountains in the far distance and along roads with verges decorated with blood-red black-eyed poppies that swayed in the breeze.

I have flown many times over Castilla y León and looked down at the ribbons of roads, red roofed towns and villages, lakes and reservoirs sparkling in the sunshine but I have to say that down here at ground level it was not nearly so exciting as it appears from ten kilometres high in the sky!

Leon Statue Spain Castila y Leon