Tag Archives: Life

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 – 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 – 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

 

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