Tag Archives: Carmona

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 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 Cantabria Spain

 

Andalusia, The Scruffy Dog of Carmona

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It was going to be a long day today because it was a late flight home thanks to Ryanair changing the schedules and cancelling the lunch time flight so we agreed to have a later start than usual and we didn’t meet in San Fernando Square until ten o’clock.  Like the previous days the sun was out and already there were groups of men beginning to gather and sit in the sunshine in the square and in the pavement cafés around the perimeter.  Because we hadn’t seen all there was to see in Carmona yesterday we decided to split the day in two and complete the sightseeing in the town before driving back to Seville to see some more of the city that we had missed on our first visit on Saturday.

First of all we walked to the town’s market place and I was distressed to find scruffy dog following us again.  Christine had been fussing it and it must have considered this to be an invitation to tag along.  I tried to get rid of it, Kim tried to get rid of it, but we both failed.  I’m not sure just what Micky did but he took it around the corner to get rid of it and we didn’t see it again for the rest of the morning.  Micky has an understanding with dogs it would seem!

We went to the fortress and fished around in our pockets for the admission fee only to be told that today the entrance was free, so how glad we were that we hadn’t visited yesterday.  It wasn’t a big castle but it was a good place to visit with commanding views in all directions across the Andalusian plain.   This place had been chosen well as a castle of strategic importance.  It had been restored and modernised of course, some time in the 1970s, but that didn’t spoil it one little bit.  The sky was blue and it was warmer today so we had a good time climbing the towers and taking in the breathtaking views.

It was late morning and we had missed breakfast earlier so we walked into the new part of the town and to a cake shop that we had found yesterday.  Inside it was pure bedlam, all of the tables were occupied and there was a babble of noisy activity that made me fear for attracting service attention.  We found a table and ordered our food and struggled to make ourselves heard over the incessant racket of animated and theatrical conversation.  And suddenly it cleared and everyone left and I was more than impressed to get the right bill because I have no idea how they manage to keep a correct account of things in all that pandemonium – it must be a special skill that they possess.

We walked back around the southern perimeter road to take advantage of the warm sunshine.  We passed the law courts that were in full session today and the local riff-raff were hanging around the entrance with their solicitors waiting for their case number to come up.  Then we returned to San Fernando Square where the sun was trapped between the surrounding buildings and everywhere had warmed through nicely.  It was so good that we stopped at the café next to the hotel for a final drink in Carmona before booking out of the hotel and leaving for Seville.

It was lovely sitting here in the sun and even the dog joining us didn’t spoil the moment.  Micky and I were the first out of the hotel and as we walked to the car I was astounded to find the mutt following the pair of us.  This was astonishing because out of all of us we were the two who disliked it the most and had made that very clear indeed.  As we sat on a bench it sat down with us and to be honest I couldn’t help admire him a bit, it was almost like a final defiant gesture on his part as though to say, you people come and go all of the time but this is my territory – permanently!  After Christine had fussed it for one last time we loaded the car with our bags and set off for Seville.

Andalusia, Tapas and Sherry in Carmona

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“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatheards, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemon, girls in black mantillas,  cathedrals, cardinals, bullfights, gypsies, serenades – in short, Spain.”  –  George Orwell

Much to my annoyance the dog followed us nearly all the way and even thwarted our several attempts to lose it by going in different directions and even hiding in a shop doorway for a while.  We couldn’t get rid of it and this caused a bit of tension between us because Christine rather liked it trotting along beside us.  Eventually Kim was successful in shooing it away and we were able to continue our walk without the unwanted canine company.

I have seen Roman ruins advertised before and sometimes they can be quite disappointing so I didn’t have high expectations of those in Carmona but they turned out to be a real surprise.  It wasn’t the Aqueduct of Segovia or anything of the scale of Segóbriga  or Mérida of course but there were extensive excavations and a museum with an informative film about the Romans in Andalusia and the significance of this place.  It was principally an ancient Roman burial site or necropolis near the Seville road that was discovered in 1881 and there was also the site of what had been a rather large amphitheatre.  The best part of all was that there was free admission and we spent well over an hour to look around the site.

Spain Arunjuez Royal Palace

It seemed that we had underestimated the town of Carmona and there was a great deal more to do here than we had originally thought.

We walked back to the fortress gate and to a little bodega that we had picked out earlier for lunch.  The Abacería L’Antiqua was full to overflowing and heaving with activity and just as we were pondering whether or not to stay a table became available and we elbowed our way through the wall of people and made ourselves comfortable. The food looked good and the bar was doing brisk trade so we selected some items from the tapas menu and waited for our food to arrive.  All around the bar there were barrels of sherry and this is something else that Andalusia is famous for.

Seville Tapas Bar

Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez on the coast. In Spanish, it is called Vino de Jerez and according to Spanish law, sherry must come from the small triangular area of the province of Cádiz between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.  After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy and because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol.  So now you know!

The food arrived quickly and it was delicious and we enjoyed it so much that we ordered second plates of our favourites and more drinks.  The bodega was a vibrant and effervescent place with people of all age groups and whole families enjoying their Sunday lunchtime gathering and we enjoyed the garrulous atmosphere and just being a part of it all.

But we couldn’t stay all afternoon because there were still things to see.  The admission charge to the fortress was €2 but the place was closed now so that would have to wait until tomorrow and instead we walked back into the network of tiny streets.  I especially wanted to retrace our car journey of the first evening and we found the very narrow street and wondered just how we had managed to negotiate it without adding to the cars dents and scratches.

Practically every car in the town had some form of damage either from scraping past walls or from other cars squeezing past and a very high proportion of them had had their wing mirrors ripped off and were now only kept in place with sticky tape.  This wasn’t the sort of place to live if you are at all fussy about the appearance of your car.

Almagro Spain

We found Micky in San Fernando Square sitting on a bench in the sunshine with a red nose and flu weary eyes and feeling a bit sorry for himself.  The man from Bar Plaza saw us and told us he had prepared paella for this evening but unfortunately for him we were determined to return to the Abacería L’Antiqua and so he had missed his opportunity.  It was late afternoon so we made arrangements to meet later and then went to our rooms.  We sampled the 70c wine in a cardboard box and although it wasn’t going to win any awards it actually wasn’t too bad.

We went first to the Forum Bar, which was busy and then walked to the Bodega, which was empty.  The contrast from the lunchtime bustle made the place almost unrecognisable and although other diners began to drift in the place never achieved the sociable levels of lunchtime.  We ordered some repeat dishes and experimented with some different ones and the food was equally as good and we stayed all evening before going back to the hotel for our final night at the San Fernando.

Andalusia, Carmona – Wives at Church and Men on Street Corners

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“…anyone that knows Spain will be aware of the frequency of the marriage in which the wife is deeply pious and the husband is irreligious.  This is indeed a fairly normal situation.  The man’s sense of self-esteem conflicts sharply with the teachings of the Church, especially in the sexual field, while he is irritated by its many small, fussy rules and regulations, which treat him, he feels, as though he were a child.”  –  Gerald Brennan – ‘South From Granada

Once again it rained heavily in the night but by morning it had cleared when I went out into the street to check the weather.  There were blue skies and as this was Sunday there was a church bell ringing and calling people to service and as I wandered aimlessly about checking the breakfast options in the little bars a crowd of nuns waddled across San Fernando Square on their way to the cathedral looking rather like a flock of penguins.

The only place open was the Plaza so we returned there for the fourth time and had the same breakfast as the previous day except that we ordered too much ham and ended up with far more than we really needed and a bigger bill than we expected.  The bad news was that Micky had gone down with a nasty little case of man flu and he wasn’t feeling very good at all.  This was the strain that affects the sense of humour and social skills and after breakfast Mick invited us to go out without him.  Naturally we said we would do no such thing and then as we watched his normally stoic temperament evaporating in front of us he demanded firmly that we should go out without him and we took the hint.

We were planning to go for another drive out, possibly to the town of Ronda but this didn’t seem fair so the rest of us decided instead to stay and explore Carmona instead.  We weren’t sure that there would be enough to do to keep us amused all day so we walked very slowly from the hotel towards the eastern gate of the old town, the Puerto de Córdoba which is of part Roman construction and because Carmona is built on an elevated ridge overlooking the central plain of Andalusia opens to a glorious view of the surrounding countryside as though standing on the prow of a ship.

The warmth of the sun was in contrast to the chilly shade of the street and we stayed a while and admired the view and warmed ourselves up before going back through the gate and climbing steadily towards the Alcázar Del Rey Don Pedro, which is an old castle at the top of the town that has been converted to a luxury Parador hotel.  We went inside and admired the lounges and the restaurant and the stunning view from the balcony but it didn’t seem that they particularly welcomed non-paying guests so we left and carried on.

We walked around the southern rim of the town and there were more good views over the plain and we sat for a while and soaked up more weak sunshine that was struggling to get up to full late morning temperature.  Our route took us now to the Alcázar de la Puerto de Sevilla, which was the western gate protecting the entrance to the old town and then we walked for a little way into the new town because I wanted to take the girls shopping but sadly on account of this being Sunday they were mostly closed and I was desperately disappointed about that as you can probably imagine.

There seemed to be strange goings on in the main town square because it was full of men just standing around and chatting in groups of ten or so and making an enormous din as they competed with each other to be heard about the great political  issues of the day or yesterday’s football results perhaps.

Mostly  elderly men because just as Gerald Brennan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”  This was obviously a Sunday morning ritual while wives attended Church and the street corners and the public squares were overflowing with men all in animated conversation waiting for the service to end.  Brennan also explains that – “At bottom the husband almost always approves of his wife’s devoutness, is aware that he is only playing truant and that, after a lifetime shrugging his shoulders at the Church, he will return to it in time to receive its last sacraments.”

Back at the Puerto de Sevilla there was a sunny pavement with café tables so we stopped for a drink before going back to the hotel to see if there was any sign of Micky.  While Christine and Sue looked for him Kim found a small shop that was open and we bought wine at 70c a litre and some cheap beer for later on.  Micky wasn’t there but the scruffy dog was and Christine started to play with the thing and this unfortunately encouraged it to then join us as we continued our walk around the town, this time back to the Roman ruins about a kilometre away back in the same direction that we had just returned from.

Andalusia, Narrow Streets and a Tight Squeeze in Carmona

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“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries.  How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell – ‘Homage to Catalonia’

In the summer a cheap flight opportunity to Seville and Andalusia in November provided the perfect opportunity to continue the quest to discover the real Spain.  Galicia in the north had been a real eye-opener but this time it was a trip to the South and the part of the peninsula with which, thanks to the travel brochures I suppose, we are all more familiar, the Spain of flamenco, Moorish architecture, sherry, tapas bars and bull fighting.

The first task after arrival at Seville airport was to pick up the hire car and although I said previously that I wouldn’t, for convenience I did choose Hertz again.  The lady at the desk took me step by step through the formalities and then showed me a diagram that identified all of the previous damage that the car had suffered.  This turned out to be practically every single panel, front back and sides and when we collected it from the car park it was in a real mess and looking quite sorry for itself and my first reaction was to be a bit annoyed that we had been allocated such a tatty vehicle.  I was soon to discover however that this was quite normal for cars in this part of Spain!  The interior was clean but there was an overpowering smell of industrial strength air freshener that was so unpleasant that we had to drive with the windows down and we began to worry about what sort of previous smell the deodoriser was covering up.

Andalucia Postcard Map 1

Instead of staying in the city of Seville, where the hotels seemed to be a little expensive, we had chosen instead to book a cheaper alternative in the nearby town of Carmona that was about thirty kilometres away.  The first part of the journey along the Autovia du Sur was pleasant and without incident and then we left at the junction for the town and things started to unraval.  We didn’t have a proper town map, only something from the multimap website and this didn’t prove to be especially helpful.

We became confused and did a couple of circuits of the town looking for street names that we could identify but these proved to be illusive and of little assistance because they didn’t seem to correspond to the map.  Eventually, on third time around the main town square I found a bar that was still open and asked for help.  The man was as equally confused by multimap as we were and it took him some time to interpret it for himself before he could even begin to draw the route that we needed through what looked like a tangled web of streets with a baffling one way system.  Finally he provided comprehensive instructions but in rapid fire Spanish that made it difficult to follow but it was helpful just to discover that we were in the new part of the town and what we really needed was the centro historico, which was a few hundred metres away.

Confident now of directions we set off again and this time took the correct turning through an imposing medieval fortress gate and into a labyrinth of confusing narrow streets.  At a fork in the road we were presented with two options.  We were staying at a hotel in San Fernando Square and there was a sign that seemed to suggest that we should turn left but I overruled Micky who pointed this out and foolishly decided to ignore the sensible thing to do and took the right fork instead.

This was a big mistake because the road climbed up a narrow cobbled street barely wide enough for the car to pass and then seemed to abruptly stop at what looked like a pedestrian alleyway.  There was an elderly Spanish couple out strolling so we asked for help and after they had studied the map seemed to suggest to us that we should carry on down this narrow path.  We were not convinced and asked for clarification and the man, who spoke no English and was not terribly useful, was determined not to let his wife, who could speak a little English and was a lot more helpful, have her turn with the map.

Maps and men must be the same everywhere, let me explain, it’s a macho sort of thing that drives us to take control and this is based on years of experience of being sent in the wrong direction as soon as you get a woman involved with directions.  Women generally are as hopeless with maps and town plans as men are with knitting patterns.  Anyway, while we were debating the situation another car pulled up behind and seemed to be heading in the direction of the alleyway so this was a clue that that was indeed the correct way to go.  As we pulled away the woman looked into the car and in a genuinely caring sort of way said ‘Be careful, good luck’ and this parting comment filled my cup of confidence full to the brim.

We set off and it soon became clear why we needed both precision and good fortune because if we had thought that the previous street had been narrow this one made it look like a six lane highway!  First of all it was necessary to negotiate a dog leg gate that was barely wider than the car and we all had to collectively breathe in so that we could squeeze through and after that the street narrowed down still further and I needed delicate keyhole surgery skills to manoeuvre through 90º bends and past carelessly parked cars and iron bollards strategically placed to impede progress at every turn.  It was like threading a needle and we now understood why the car was covered in dents and scratches and probably why the air freshener was so strong; the previous hirer had possibly driven down the same street and had an unfortunate bowel incident in the process!

Going forward was tricky and we were making slow progress but what really concerned me was the possibility of reaching a dead end and having to reverse all the way back because that would have been impossible.  Finally however we came out into a square (that was actually a circle) and by luck we had found our hotel.  After three circuits of the square it was obvious that there was nowhere to park however so we had to settle for a side street and a two hundred metre walk back to the Hotel Posada San Fernando where a lady on reception was waiting to check us in.