Tag Archives: Plaza Mayor

Northern Spain – The Plaza Mayor and an Updated Top Ten

Cities of Castilla y Leon

Tomorrow we would be returning to the coast in Cantabria and so now we had come to end of our drive through Castilla y León and our visit to the main cities although, and I apologise for this, we had missed out Soria.

It would have been just too much of a detour as we came to the end of our travels but I have promised to go back one day and apologise for this rudeness because Soria has one of the most bizarre festivals in Spain where once a year local men demonstrate their faith and fearlessness (stupidity) by walking over red hot coals!

We had visited a lot of new cities and it was time now to reassess our top ten list of favourite Plaza Mayors.  The more places we visit the more difficult this becomes so I have now extended this list from five to ten and introduced two categories – cities and towns.

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is arguably the most important part of a Spanish town or city and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares but use them in an entirely different way – all day drinking, littering and anti-social behaviour.

In Spain the Plaza Mayor is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by.  This is the beating heart of a Spanish community and when we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the town and its people.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Castilla-La Mancha

In the search for real Spain (not the coasts and the Costas), in the past five years, we have visited and enjoyed dozens of Plaza Mayors; Madrid, the largest, Salamanca, the second largest, Toledo, next to its towering cathedral and the tiled Plaza de España in Seville.  We liked them all and we began now to compile a list with a view to choosing our favourites.

We considered Ávila,  Mérida and ValladolidCáceres and Santiago de CompostellaOviedo and León  but after a lively debate weighing up the pros and cons and putting forward the case for each one in turn we finally agreed on the top five in each category but could not reach consensus on the actual order.

Valladolid Spain

First the cities:  Segovia in Castilla y Leon because of the Cathedral and the architecture and the little streets running away from it like spokes from a wheel, Trujillo in Extremadura, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, its grand palaces and dusty, sunburnt aura and then Salamanca with its grand baroque architecture and after that Alcala de Henara and the Plaza de Cervantes with its statues and gardens and grandly colonnaded perimeter.  These were all from previous visits to Spain but we both agreed that after this journey then we would simply have to add Palencia  because of its unspoilt charm and the timeless quality of the buildings and architecture – a real gem!

And so to the towns: the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo and reeking of the Spanish Peninsula War in every crack and crevice, Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and Siguenza with its stone simplicity, cobbled alleys, sharp stairways, deep arches, shady courtyards and stone buttresses leaning across the street and leaving barely a single shaft of sunlight and which was the probably the closest yet that I have been looking for in Spain.  Almagro with its stone colonnaded arches and Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of green and fully glazed in a central European style which makes this place unique in all of Spain.  Finally Tembleque which we visited on a dreary overcast day but despite that there was no ignoring the quality of its fine Plaza.

That was a difficult debate and lasted as long as a couple of San Miguels and two dishes of olives but once we had finished we drained our glasses and returned to the Meson del Cid to prepare for a second night in the town.

Chinchon Madrid 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 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.

 

Central Spain – Sigüenza to Atienza on the Ruta de Don Quixote

Siguenza Spain

In a day of unpredictable weather the sun was shining when we stepped out of the dark interior of the cathedral with only occasional summer cotton wool ball clouds in the sky and because it had been rather overcast when we first walked to the castle we decided to do so again.

This wasn’t too much of a chore because it was only a few hundred metres past the hotel on Calle Valencia which ran the whole length of the town.  Outside the hotel an old drinking spring was bubbling and gurgling and splashing cool water like gentle rain from a fountain into an ornamental trough and we walked back up the hill to the very top of the town.  And after we had satisfied ourselves that we had captured the pictures that we wanted we looked for an alternative route back to the Plaza Mayor and found a footpath that ran around the back of the Alcazar and then dropped down below the towering cliffs on which it stood looming high above us and looking proud and impregnable.

On the way we spotted a small market and sensing a shopping opportunity and so that we should get there as quickly as possible, Kim led me down a muddy and precarious path which came to an old bridge over the Rio Henares which even after the rain was barely a sticky trickle and then to the jumble of stalls that lined the river bank.  The first part of the market was vegetables and market garden stalls and in a second section there were second-hand clothing and junk stalls run by gypsies and the only one that mildly interested me was a stall selling various infusions as alternative remedies and reliefs for almost every known common ailment.

Leaving the market it occurred to us that we had practically done everything there was to do in Sigüenza and it was only just past lunch time so we walked to the railway station to see if there was any possibility of catching a train to another city on our ‘to visit’ list, Zaragoza.  The station was curiously quiet, there were no staff on duty and the main hall was being used by a group of small boys playing indoor football.  We found a timetable but it revealed a train service so infrequent that it was practically useless so we abandoned that idea and decided to drive to nearby Atienza instead.

Atienza Spain

The drive to Atienza followed the western section of a circular tour which is part

The journey to the nearby town followed the western section of a circular tour which is part of the Ruta de Don Quixote, in fact stage ten of the route which sprawls across all of Castilla-La Mancha, and after a climbing section of hairpin bends with rear view mirror views of Sigüenza bathed in sunlight the road reached a plateau with a long straight road, a ribbon of charcoal tarmac cutting through the fields and riding the contours of the land like a gently undulating roller-coaster.

Either side of the long straight road there were vast open fields with the most attractive colours that rolled rhythmically and desolately away in all directions with a stunning vista of subtle hues and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter-milk cream, dusty olive, lavender grey, gleaming gold and russet red all lying crushed under the burden of what was now a vivid blue spring sky.  We chased mauve and purple shadows as they shifted across the hills as the sun picked out towns and villages like a searchlight in the sky.

Eventually we arrived in tiny Atienza and walked through the stone town with its crumbling colonnades and rusting iron balconies and then eased the car to the very top of the town where a castle in a commanding position overlooked the plateau in all directions.  The castle had played an important role in the Reconquista but had been destroyed by French troops during the War of Independence (the Peninsular War) and now two hundred years later it is waiting its turn in the programme of castle restorations and I got a sense that it might have to be patient.

There was quite a steep walk from the car park to the ruined towers and with rain on the next hill sweeping down the valley towards us like a curtain of chain-mail we quickly abandoned any thoughts of walking to the very top and dashed for the shelter of the car and drove back to Sigüenza through yet more changeable weather.

It was late afternoon now so after stocking up on wine and beer and olive oil crisps we sat in the room, read our books and waited for the fire to ignite.  By six o’clock there was no sign of life so I investigated the controls and although they were all in impenetrable technical Spanish I stabbed a few buttons and generally interfered with the settings without having a clue what I was doing and eventually it made some encouraging noises and I achieved ignition!

As it approached evening meal time we left the Cuatro Canos and as we judged it too early to eat in a town where the restaurants didn’t appear to open until way past nine o’clock (being English we like to eat at about seven) we decided to walk the long way round to the town centre and we talk a third stroll to the castle under the waxy glow of the ornamental street lights and through the labyrinth of narrow streets, curious corners, dead-ends and intriguing alleyways, through the Plaza Mayor where there was a children’s candle lantern launching and live music and then below the exterior of the cathedral where the church bells were ringing in anticipation of Palm Sunday tomorrow.

We were right, it was too early for the restaurant to be open for business but they assured us it would open shortly and gave us complimentary drinks so that we wouldn’t slip away while they prepared the dining room and eventually it was ready and we enjoyed a second good Castilian meal at Le Meson and then returned to the room where the fire in the corner was standing cold and silent.

Siguenza Spain plaza Mayor

Central Spain – Sigüenza, the Alcazar and the Plaza Mayor

Siguenza Parador Castle

The soporific combination of a dark room and a quiet street with only whispered footsteps outside meant that we slept until quite late and were only woken when the fire in the corner of the room cranked into life at nine o’clock.  This didn’t matter however because breakfast wasn’t served until half past.

The breakfast turned out to be quite excellent consisting of tostado con tomate, ham, egg and cheese, pancakes and Madeira cake all served fresh.  The only problem that arose was with the tea and this I concluded was a consequence of the absence of English guests staying at the Posada.  I was offered green, peppermint or a variety of different fruit teas but no English breakfast or simple black.

We eventually established what it was that I wanted and I felt bad about that when the waitress was sent out hurriedly to the shops to buy some.  After she returned I finally got my pot of tea but it was served luke warm and I was forced to conclude that in remote parts of Spain they are not very good at making tea!  It didn’t spoil the breakfast though.

It was mid morning by the time we left the hotel and there was a simple choice – up the hill to the Alcazar or down to the Cathedral.  We decided to start at the top of the town and make our way to the bottom.  Lined on each side with caramel coloured houses with terracotta tiled roofs, the Calle de Valencia followed the line of the old medieval town wall and half way to the castle we passed through the Puerto del Porto Mayor which was once the main gateway into the narrow streets of the old town and from here there was a final twisting climb to the Plaza del Castillo and the inevitable Parador Hotel.

Siguenza Spain Town walls

The Parador Hotels are classy places well beyond our limited budget and can be found all over Spain.  These were originally a State owned chain and were luxury hotels in old castles, palaces, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings that were established to promote quality tourism, to act as guardian of the national and artistic heritage of Spain and to assist poorer regions to attract more visitors.  They are no longer fully owned by the State and during the recession have begun to suffer financial difficulties but there didn’t appear to be a drastic shortage of guests this morning.

The present day castle was built in the twelfth century but there has been a fortress here since the Visigoths built the first in the fifth century.  Later as the Northern Kings led the Reconquest of Spain the Moors constructed a new castle on the same site but in 1124, the crusading ecclesiastic knight, Bernardo de Agen took possession of the castle and began the Christian repopulation and the building of the Christian Alcazar.

The castle was extended and remodelled at various times between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries but was partially destroyed in 1811 during the French occupation. It again suffered damage during the Carlist Wars and during the Spanish Civil War when Sigüenza became part of the front line fighting during the Aragon campaign. It had to be almost completely rebuilt after that so although it now suffers the indignity of being a hotel at least we have the Parador initiative to thank for what we see today.

It was possible to walk around parts of the old external areas but there is no getting away from the fact that the interior of the old castle is a hotel so with little or nothing to see except the reception desk and a couple of reproduction suits of armour we didn’t stay long and made our way down a narrow stone street towards the Plaza Mayor.

The weather was proving very inconsistent and there was no way of confidently predicting which way it would go as it changed without warning through intermittent periods of sunshine, cloud, blue sky and then squally showers when rain fell like tiny lead fishing weights and the temperature fluctuated wildly.

To dodge the showers we reached the pedestrianised fifteenth century Plaza Mayor via a number of churches, historic houses and artisan craft shops until we eventually reached the central square of the town which although wouldn’t get into my personal top five Plaza Mayor was very pleasant indeed with renaissance architecture, teetering balconies and covered colonnades, palaces and the magnificent cathedral with history etched deep into every stone and dripping like honey off the walls.

There was no real activity in the Plaza today and it was too cold for the bars to set up their tables outside so it didn’t take us long to wander through the stone pillars and across the cobbles and we left the square and made our way to the cathedral which was where we were going next.

Siguenza Spain Plaza Mayor

Central Spain – Footballers Wines and a Bronpi Stove

Siguenza Postcard 2

“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’

Eventually we left the A2 Autovia and took a minor road for the final twenty-five kilometres to Sigüenza and as we did we began to climb because we were entering the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, part of the Sistema Central which is one of those east-west mountain ranges that extend through Spain that before high speed rail and modern motorways that have bored straight through them kept the Spanish people historically separated.

We climbed gently to over one thousand metres to an elevation that had suppressed the first signs of Spring and then without warning we turned a corner and there sitting handsomely in the natural folds of the landscape was a towering castle (a Parador hotel of course), medieval walls and a honey coloured cathedral surrounded by a mantle of terracotta roofs and ribbons of tiny lanes.

I inevitably got lost in the labyrinth of streets and a confusing one-way system but Sigüenza is only a small town so it didn’t take long to make the necessary corrections, find the well disguised hotel and get checked in.  This was the Casa Rural Posada los Cuatro Canos and I had chosen it because of its high scores from previous guests, because it was inexpensive (naturally) and because of the one hundred and twenty-five previous guest reviews, one hundred and twenty-three were Spanish and none from the UK.

The down side of course to choosing a place not used to English guests was the language barrier and so checking in was a longer than usual process and involved the translation services of a mobile phone but the owner was friendly, seemed genuinely pleased to see us and invited us to settle in.

We had a charming second-floor room with stone walls and wooden ceiling beams, terracotta floor tiles, small window terraces with iron balcony rails and on account of the cool weather a large stove in the corner, a groaning monster delivering more heat than strictly necessary, spitting sparks and wheezing like an asthmatic after a long walk but it was cosy, very cosy and we liked it.

Normally on arrival at a destination we would make straight for the Plaza Mayor but on account of the rather disappointing weather Kim decided to stay put by the fire and I went into town alone to find a shop for some beer and wine.  Coming from the UK where recent temperatures had struggled to get above zero I didn’t find it too cold but the local people were all wrapped up and well protected and in the bars and bodegas people sat in the windows looking mournfully out into the damp street – there were certainly no outside tables and chairs here today!

I found a shop and selected some wine, a Rioja of course, my favourite, and was talked into a second bottle of local origin from the winery of the Barcelona and Spain footballer Andrés Iniesta from Albacete and with his name on the label there was premium to pay and it was twice the price of the Rioja.  I returned to the room and we spent the late afternoon and early evening enjoying the heat from the fire and the simple pleasure of being away from home after a very long Winter.

Later in the evening after it had turned dark we tore ourselves away from the comfort of the room and made our way into the town stopping first at the Tourist Information office to pick up leaflets and a map and then with our heads full of recommendations and advice we walked to the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral square and we were comforted by a clear sky and a full moon casting flickering shadows through and along the narrow streets.

Eventually we agreed upon a restaurant that we both liked and although it was curiously empty for a Friday night the staff didn’t seem to mind that we were the only two customers and we selected traditional food from the unhelpful menu and chose well because we both enjoyed a fine meal.

It wasn’t particularly late when we left Le Meson but except for a few bars the town was clearly having an early night so we strolled back to Los Cuatro Canos where, as the fire had now gone out we had an early night of our own.

Los Cuatro Canos Brompi Stove

Spain, Consuegra, Tembleque and Aranjuez

Consuegra Windmills Spain

I realise that this isn’t the correct technical meteorological term but when we woke up the next morning, it was as though the sluice gates had been opened and it was absolutely chucking it down!  From outside there was the sound of (very) heavy rain and when the shutters were opened we were confronted with a blanket of thick grey cloud and horizontal precipitation thrashing against the window – it was all a bit dull and dismal and did not look at all promising.  But, I have great faith in the expression ‘rain before seven, clear by eleven’ that I was reasonably confident of improvement as we mopped up the wet tiles under the balcony door, dressed and went for breakfast.

After a second equally good three course breakfast we reluctantly packed our bags and checked out of the hotel.  It was still hammering down outside and when we emerged from the underground car park we were trying to find our way in driving rain and in some places through flooded streets.  For some reason we found it more difficult than it really should have been to find our way out of the labyrinth of one-way streets and with wind screen wipers on double speed I am certain that we did two or three circuits of the town before we found the main road and a filling station and then plotted a course north towards Madrid with a couple of stops planned along the way.

To begin with our route took us along some nerve jangling minor roads but eventually we found some proper highways and the pace picked up as we continued to travel north.  The rain was easing and with better weather to the west I was becoming increasingly confident of my eleven o’clock prediction.

After an hour or so we started to get close to Consuegra, famous for its castle and windmills and after getting confused at a motorway junction we eventually began to approach the outskirts of what can only really be described as a town of extreme contrasts.  From what we saw of Consuegra it is scruffy and uncared for, the streets are grimy and the roads full of precarious potholes but rising high above all of the disappointment is a line of whitewashed, blue domed windmills standing sentinel over the town and the adjacent plain.

Don Quixote’s windmills sit in a line along the top of a steep hill and they look down on the flat red dirt plains of La Mancha, their once free flowing sails now arthritically stiff, tied down and no longer spun by the wind. They are almost smug in what is now their supremely safe tourist protected environment.

The weather was wild and showing no signs of improvement as the wind moaned through the sail wires and as we walked between the black sails and admired the bulk of the castle nearby we drew strange glances from bus tourists who were wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves that were much more appropriate than our linens and short sleeves.

Tembleque Plaza Mayor Spain

It was cold so we didn’t stay long and drove back through the untidy town and rejoined the Autovia heading north.  Our next stop was the town of Tembleque but when we pulled in and parked, although it had finally stopped raining, we were not terribly hopeful. It was dreary and overcast and the Plaza Mayor that we had stopped to see with its balconies, painted colonnades and stone pillars (not unlike Almagro but without the sunshine) looked disappointing and dreary and sadly won’t be going into our top five so after a quick visit to the tourist information museum we were soon back on the road.

We were on our way now to Aranjuez and the site of a Royal Palace of King Juan Carlos but the road passed by the town of Ocaña which is famous for two things, a Peninsular War battle that was the biggest defeat of the war for the defending Spanish army and for having the third largest Plaza Mayor in Spain after Madrid and Salamanca.  I am not sure about that because we never actually got there but it might well have the biggest prison in Spain right next door and on account of the dodgy looking men hanging around the gate and the dreary weather we gave it a miss and drove straight by.

And so in mid afternoon we arrived in Aranjuez, parked the car, stopped at a café where we sat near the window and lamented the woeful weather and then walked the short distance to the Royal Palace.  King Juan Carlos has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at this one very often because it didn’t look very ‘lived in’, if you know what I mean; most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.  We walked through the gardens and then paid the entrance fee to go inside and take the tour through a succession or rooms (all the same, by the way) and then some exhibits about life at the Royal Spanish court through the ages.

To be honest the day was in danger of becoming a bit of a let-down compared with those that had gone before and I think we were both a bit disappointed when we returned to the car and set off for our final destination, Chinchon, which we knew well on account of visiting there a couple of times previously.  However, by some minor miracle as we drove the short distance the grey cloud began to shatter and disperse and by the time we approached one of our favourite places in Spain there was at last some welcome blue sky and although my eleven o’clock prediction was at least four hours overdue we were glad of that!

Royal Palace of Aranjuez Spain