Tag Archives: Salamanca

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

 

Northern Spain – The City of Ávila

Avila Postcard Map

“When you approach (Ávila) from the west almost all you see is its famous wall, a mile and a half of castellated granite… it looks brand new, so perfect is its preservation and seems less like an inanimate rampart than a bivouac of men-at-arms….”                                                                                                                                          Jan Morris – ‘Spain’ 

As we drove further south into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat high plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, lakes and rivers and snow capped mountains.  Eventually we reached a desolate treeless table top plateau with a wilderness landscape with giant grey boulders lying randomly on the bracken coloured land and then we dropped a little and at eleven hundred metres started to approach Ávila, the highest provincial capital in Spain.

The old city of Ávila is completely enclosed within a medieval wall and as our hotel was inside it we drove through one of the main gates and into tangle of narrow streets and immediately became lost and confused.  Just as things were beginning to lookcompletely hopeless we found a tourist information office and went inside for help.  The man at the desk explained that parking was very difficult (we’d guessed that already) and that it would be best to go back out of the old city and park in a public car park nearby.

He gave me a street map that looked like a bowl of spaghetti and told me that it was too difficult for him to try to explain how to get out and that I should just drive around until I get to a gate.  ‘Thank you very much, that was very helpful’ I muttered silently under my breath.

Well, we eventually found the way out and the car park and then we had to walk back into the city and to the Plaza Catedral to find the Hotel Palacio De Los Velada.  It was a four star hotel and we don’t usually do four star hotels but I had picked up an excellent half price deal and found ourselves staying in a genuine old seventeenth century palace that had been converted into this wonderful hotel with a large internal courtyard, grand wooden balconies, sumptuous furniture and an exceptional room.

Avila City Walls

The next morning after breakfast we had an early walk into the town before checking out of the hotel and we stepped out in shirt sleeves but were immediately forced back to get a jacket because although the sun was shining, at this elevation, there was a sharp chill in the air.

The hotel was next to the cathedral, which was closed to visitors this morning on account of this being Sunday and the local people were using the place for the purpose for which it was intended (i.e. worship) so we walked around the outside instead and were delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the building.

They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers.  Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form.  Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire.

We walked outside of the old city walls and found ourselves in the middle of preparations for a half marathon that was going to take place around the city walls with athletes all warming up and preparing for the big event.  In the early morning sun the view over the table top plain to the snow capped mountains in the distance was unexpected and satisfying and we sat for a while and enjoyed it.  It was peaceful and serene and I felt unusually contented.

Avila City Walls

Later we went back into the city to walk the walls, which (according to the guide book) are the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still capture the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress.  They are two and a half kilometres long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates.

Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.

We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate entrances to which our tickets entitled us entrance and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall.  There were excellent views of the town, of the countryside beyond and the Storks sitting on their piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings.  We thought that Ávila seemed a friendly sort of place because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English.  There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.

After completing two of the sections we stopped for a drink in the sun in San Vicente Square on the outside of the walls and we agreed that we really liked the practice of always providing a little tapas with the drinks and we hatched a cunning plan – three bars, three drinks, three tapas, free lunch!

Avila Spain

 

Northern Spain – The City of Salamanca

Salamanca Province

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

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

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

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

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

Salamanca Roman Bridge and Cathedrals

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

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

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

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

 

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

Spain, The Plaza Mayor and Flamenco

Almagro Spain Plaza Mayor

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a street leading to the main square and we found it easily and left the car in the underground car park.  It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden.

It was late afternoon by this time and with the sun beginning to dip we didn’t linger long but made our way quickly to the Plaza Mayor to find a bar.  On the way we passed by the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Diego de Almagro and then entered the rectangular Plaza.

Almagro Plaza Mayor Spain

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide it is flanked on both sides by arcades of weathered Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of green and fully glazed in a central European style this place is truly unique in Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

We choose a table on the sunny side of the Plaza, ordered beer and wine and just sat and watched the activity while we nibbled the inevitable olives.  The bar owner shooed away some small boys playing football, telling them to play elsewhere and families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers.  Walking around the square was a proud grandmother pushing a young baby in an immaculate pram which matched her pristine outfit and she completed at least a dozen circuits, stopping frequently to chat and to show off the small child to anyone who showed the slightest interest.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Castilla-La Mancha

The Plaza Mayor is 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.  This 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.

When we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and a complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the town and its people.

In the search for real Spain  in the past three 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 top five favourites.

We considered ÁvilaMérida and ValladolidCáceres and Santiago de Compostella in Galicia 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 but could not reach absolute consensus on the actual order.

So this is our list: 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, where we had been only today, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo,  Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and although we had only just arrived we liked this place so much that we both agreed to include Almagro in the list.

  

After a second leisurely drink we paid up and left the square and strolled back to our hotel where we asked for some dining recommendations and the receptionist convinced us to go to her favourite just a couple of streets away so after we had rested and changed we took her advice and found the restaurant in a side street off the main square.

Although it wasn’t especially late when we finished the meal, we were tired after a long day that had started three hundred kilometres away in Mérida, taken us to Trujillo and then a three hour drive to Almagro and we were ready for bed.  We walked back through the Plaza Mayor that was lively in a subdued sort of way (if that makes sense) and then to the street to the hotel.

Spain Flamenco Dancer

About half way along we heard the lyrical sound of Spanish guitars, clacking castanets, the rhythmic stamping of Cuban heels and chattering stilettos like the sound of an approaching steam train and we wondered where it was coming from and then through the pavement level window of a cellar we could see a dancing class in full swing.

Some local people suggested that we should go inside and watch so we did just that and before the lesson ended we enjoyed fifteen minutes of genuine Spanish music played by a sort of skiffle group and a group of young people dancing the flamenco, stamping, posturing, and pouting in a rapid, aggressive, staccato style like the sound of a tommy gun firing

It was a wonderful way to end the evening!

Almagro Spain Plaza Mayor

Salamanca and Valladolid

We arrived in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Salamanca just after midday, easily slipped into an underground car park and made our way into the city.  On every visit to Spain I seem to be visiting a new World Heritage Site so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that I have now been to sixteen and that is over a third of them.

In 2005 I visited Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi and Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Córdoba,  the  Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville.  In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities I visited the Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct, the Historic Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila.

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.  Then around the University buildings and visited 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.  All  elderly men just as Gerald Brenan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”

It was a good Plaza, not the best, but still worth a visit and when we had finished admiring it we left through a stone arch and looked for a bar and somewhere for lunch and we found what we were looking for just outside the square so stopped for tapas and a beer.

As we ate an optimistic old lady passed by selling sprigs of rosemary and I didn’t know why until later when I looked it up.  Rosemary, apparently, is widely thought to be a powerful guardian and to give power to women and therefore it is used by many people to ward off evil in the home and bring good luck in family matters. If I had known this at the time I might have bought some to see if it might improve the weather because the mist wasn’t shifting when we left and went to visit the cathedral.

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 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.

After the visit we returned to the streets and walked to the 1st Century Roman Bridge across the River Tormes, which was flowing west towards the Embalse de Almendra that we had visited yesterday and then with no real prospect of weather improvement we abandoned Salamanca to the mist and returned to the car.

Leaving the city we joined the Autovia de Castilla for the one hundred and twenty kilometre journey back to Valladolid.  It was too early to go straight back to the airport so shortly after crossing the Douro for the final time, and as we were passing, it seemed impolite not to visit the city so we left the motorway and headed for the centre.  Valladolid is a sprawling industrial city, the tenth largest in Spain and does not feature on many tourist itineraries even though it was the city where Christopher Columbus spent his last years and died.  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 late afternoon and predictably after failing to make an appearance all day the sun was breaking through now and this was good because the expansive Plaza was really very attractive and all decorated and carefully colour coordinated in various complimentary shades of cream and crimson red and the sun settling down low in the west made the whole place feel warm and hospitable.

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 airport.  We felt a bit rude leaving so quickly but if we fly again to Valladolid we shall pay it the courtesy of staying longer.

Sierra de Francia in the Gredos Mountains

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.” –  Ernest Hemingway

Actually as it turned out it would have been a whole lot better if the wind had continued to blow because when we woke in the morning there was a thick fog and the city was completely obscured from view from the hotel windows.  It was all rather spooky but above it we could make out pale blue sky so this made us more confident than we really had a right to be about the day.

After breakfast it was still misty so we were forced to abandon our plans to return to Ciudad Rodrigo for blue-sky photographs and set off instead to visit the historical city of Salamanca.  Because it was earlier than we had anticipated we decided to take a scenic route rather than the direct Autovia de Castilla.  Leaving the city for the last time we took the road signposted towards Béjar in a southeasterly direction towards the Gredos mountains and in particular the Sierra de Francia, one of the ranges belonging to the Sistema Central, the mountain range that separates Spain in two.

At first the road was long and straight as it cut through a flat landscape of livestock farms and woods that were slowly beginning to emerge from the swirling mists of a November morning.  As we drove through a succession of quiet towns the sun began to poke through and the sky started to turn blue.  After a while we hit the edge of a national park with pine covered mountain slopes and then deciduous woods of alder, oak, pine and ash in splendid autumn finery that made it look like a treasury of gold.  The road became more difficult as we entered a series of hairpin bends with glorious views over the valleys and mountain passes below.

I had miscalculated the driving distance towards our turn for Salamanca and we seemed to keep going forever but the journey and the scenery was magnificent and another valuable Spanish geography lesson.  Eventually we reached the road juction we were heading for and turned northeast towards Salamanca.  At first the road continued to twist and turn but after a few kilometres we dropped quickly back down to open range and the agricultural plain and started  to pick up speed and make good progress.

We drove through fields of grazing avileña negra ibérica cattle, jet black and with nasty looking horns and occassional blanca cacereña, white and apparantly endangered but good meat, flocks of sheep enjoying good quality grazing grass and oak planations with Black Iberian Pigs gorging themselves on acorns in preparation for being turned into the Spanish gastro speciality Jamón ibérico.  We were enjoying good weather now but after about thirty kilometres we ran into a thick bank of fog that blotted out the sun and didn’t shift all the way into Salamanca.