Tag Archives: Spain

A Year in a Life – 20th November, Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen)

The route from Manzanares Real to El Escorial took us to the foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama mountain range and directly past one of the few remaining reminders of the Franco regime – the Valle de los Caídos.  The Valley of the Fallen is a shallow green natural basin tucked into the folds of the mountain about fifty kilometres north of central Madrid.  It is the controversial last resting place of the dictator General Francisco Franco who conceived this place for himself out of his own arrogance and conceit.

For almost forty years until his death on 20th November 1975 the Generalíssimo was someone that Spaniards could not escape from.  He was there in school books, church prayers, statues, plaques, street names and thousands of other reminders of a violent insurrection that led to a vicious civil war.  Now though his face and name are being erased from public view and even the army, where nostalgia for the dictator survived long after his death in 1975, has pledged to remove all plaques, statues and monuments to the regime of a man it once revered.

From the entrance gate there is a five kilometre drive to the monument on a road that passes through lush vegetation of tall pines punctuated by a scattering of oak, ilex and poplar trees and which passes over a couple of elegant stone bridges and at the top is the most recent piece of fascist religious monumental architecture to have been erected in western Europe.  A huge blue-grey granite cross soars one hundred and fifty metres into the sky which on a clear day can be seen from the centre of Madrid and no wonder because it is claimed to be the largest in the World.  Below the cross are a series of arches overlooking a wide featureless concrete esplanade and beyond the galleries is the entrance to the basilica through two modest bronze doors.

The floor is made of granite and black marble and above it there is an interior dome lined in gold mosaic.  The basilica is longer than St Peter’s in Rome and almost as high and is built to dimensions that matched the mountainous ego of its creator.  Officially it is a war memorial in remembrance of all those who perished in the Spanish civil war and a symbol of forgiveness and peace but the monument has never actually managed to achieve this worthy status because it was built partly by using Republican prisoners as labourers and the grim intimidating monument has always been seen rather as a symbol of the victory of the Nationalists.

Today the monument is an embarrassment to the State and successive Spanish governments have agonised over what to do with it.  Since 2004 the left-leaning government, which has been following a policy of the removal of Francoist symbols from public buildings and spaces, has had an uneasy relationship with a monument that is the most conspicuous legacy from Franco’s rule.

In November 2009, Patrimonio Nacional, who manages the building, suddenly and controversially ordered the closure of the basilica for an indefinite period of time, citing as a reason deterioration and preservation issues which may affect the cross and compromise some of the sculptures. These allegations have been contested by technical experts and the religious community that lives in the complex, and had been seen by some conservative opinion groups as a policy of harassment against the monument, an opinion reinforced when in 2010 the Pieta sculpture group started to be ‘dismantled’ with hammers and heavy machinery.

Every year on the first Saturday after the 20th November old hard-line Francoists attend a religious ceremony at the monument in his memory, which is really a massive political rally, and this annual gathering of fascists is also an embarrassment to the government and to most of modern Spain.

We had read that the monument was closed but the gate was open so we swung inside anyway and pulled up beside the pay kiosk at the entrance where a middle aged lady explained that the monument wasn’t open and we should leave.  I followed some cars and drove on expecting to find a turning point but after a kilometre it was obvious there wasn’t one and the cars we were following were authorised to be there so I did a three point turn instead next to two vertical granite columns at either side of the road.

What we hadn’t known about was the significance of the 20th November and being only a week away this must have been making the people on the gate a bit nervous because as we drove down we passed the woman from the kiosk who was pursuing us in a red Seat and who waved frantically to us as we drove by.

Political rallies in celebration of the former dictator are now banned by the Law of Historical Memory, voted on by the Congress of Deputies in October 2007 and it seems that the authorities were anticipating extra trouble this year in response to the closure of the monument and back at the gate two burly guards were shaking their heads and giving disapproving grimaces.  I gave my best socialist smile and made pathetic gestures of apology but then left as quickly as possible and rejoined the road to El Escorial where we hoped we might be made to feel more welcome.

A Year in a Life – 17th November, Jamon Iberico de Bellota

One of the fascinating things about the world’s great food is the way they are a product of environment, geography and history combined into one mouthwatering gastronomic experience. The western provinces of Spain, which I visited on 17th November 2009, are a good example. 

About eight hundred years ago, it was decreed that every village would be responsible for maintaining a mixture of grass, for grazing; cork trees, for firewood; and holm oaks, for shade, building materials and acorns.  This woodland prairie, in effect a man-made ecosystem, once covered 90% of the region and while it is now much smaller, the dehesa, as it is called, still provides one of the world’s greatest hams: jamon iberico de bellota.

Bellota means ‘acorn’, and it so happens that the native black-hoofed pigs are remarkably fond of the vast piles of nuts that fall each autumn from the branches of the holm oaks.  At this time of year, the cattle and sheep are shut away, and the pigs are turned loose to roam, snuffle and above all eat to their heart’s content. After two months of devouring up to ten kilograms of acorns a day, they roughly double their body weight.  They get so fat that they have to be neutered because the females are too overweight to be able to run away from the wild boars who would otherwise come down from the mountains to shag them and in the process compromising the purity of the breed.

In winter the pigs are slaughtered and the legs cured with sea salt. Remarkably, though, the fattest animals are not yet even halfway through their journey from sty to plate. The acorns on which they have been feeding are rich in oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olives and iberico pigs are sometimes called “four-legged olive trees”.

This in turn means that their meat can cure for far longer than ordinary hams, from eighteen months to two years or even more and during this time, a kind of reverse fattening process happens and the leg loses up to half its original weight, but acquires a depth of flavour unmatched by any other ham.

It is sold with its black hoof still attached, as an indication of its origins, it is kept on a special stand and carved into the thinnest of slices, to be served with a couple of eggs for breakfast, as evening tapas with a glass of salty fino sherry, or as a light lunch with crusty country bread and a little manchego cheese. The colour is a deep ruby red, the texture is dense and chewy quite unlike a silky, sticky slice of, say, prosciutto di Parma and the taste is characterised by a rich, nutty sweetness that gives way to a lingering finish, like old wine.

Not all jamon is de bellota however and there are various grades and the hams are labeled according to the pigs’ diet.

Only the finest jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de bellota and this ham is from the free-range pigs that roam the oak forests along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this lastfew weeks of their lives.  It is also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera and the ham is cured for a minimum of three years.  The next grade of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de recebo, which is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.  The third type of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico, which is  ham is from pigs that are fed only grain and is cured for twenty-four months.

A Life in a Year – 15th November, Trujillo and the Spanish Conquistadors

Trujillo, on the Tozo River, a tributary of the Tagus, is sited on the only hill for miles around and about forty kilometres east of Cáceres.  Although the Autovia passes close by it is not an especially busy tourist city so when we drove in and followed signs to the Plaza Mayor we found parking ridiculously easy just a few metres away from the main square. 

The pace of life in the plaza was delightfully slow with a just a few visitors wandering around and others sitting with local people in the bars and cafés around the perimeter. It was pleasantly warm but I would suspect that in high summer this large exposed granite space can become the Sun’s anvil and it would be important to find a spot in the shade.

 All around the square there are grand palaces and mansions and outside the sixteenth century Iglesia de San Martín in the north-east corner is the reason why, a great equestrian statue of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro.  It is an interesting coincidence that many of the sixteenth century explorers and adventurers who carved out the Spanish Empire in South America came from Extremadura and as well as Pizzaro, Hérnan Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs and founded Mexico, Hernando De Soto, who explored Florida, and Pedro de Almagro, who accompanied Pizzaro, all came from this south-west corner of Spain.

Francisco Pizzaro was born in Trujillo and became a conquistador who travelled along much of the Pacific coast of South America.  He encountered the ancient Incan empire, met the Inca King Atahulpa on 15th November1532  and brutally and quickly conquered it , killing thousands of natives, including the Atahulpa and stealing immense hoards of gold, silver, and other treasures for the King of Spain and for himself.  As a consequence of Pizzaro’s adventures, Spain became the greatest, richest and most powerful country in the world at the time and as well as conquering Peru and founding the city of Lima, he also added Ecuador and Columbia to the Spanish Empire thus providing immense new territories and influence and spreading Roman Catholicism to the New World.

We walked out the Plaza Mayor and followed the steep cobbled lanes as they twisted their way up past buildings constructed of attractive mellow stone, past the Parador and more churches and mansions until finally we were at the top at the Alcázar of the Moors who controlled this city for five hundred years before the reconquest.  Inside the castle we walked around the high stone walls and stopped frequently to admire the uninterrupted views over the dehesa of Extremadura spreading endlessly in every direction in a patchwork of agricultural green, gold and brown.

Walking back down to the plaza was a great deal easier than the energy sapping climb but we got lost in the cobweb of tiny streets and surprised ourselves by emerging at an unexpected entrance to the square which was jam-packed with cars on account of it being the end of school for the day and parents were collecting their children to take them home.  It was a little past lunch time and we were overdue something to eat so we examined the menus at the pavement restaurants and when Kim was satisfied with our choice we found a seat in the sun and ordered some local dishes and a glass of beer.

A Year in a Life – 7th November, 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.

A Life in a Year – 6th November, Arribes del Douro y Águeda National Park

Douro National Park spain

In the morning there was a huge improvement in the weather and as we sat by ourselves in the breakfast room sunlight flooded in through the large windows so we finished quickly so that we could start our drive north towards the glacial lakes of the Zamora Province.

To begin with we took a long straight road from Ciudad Rodrigo towards the town of Lumbrales and we scanned the sky nervously as it changed frequently from clear blue to patchy cloud to overcast and back again.  Once through the unremarkable little town we entered the Arribes del Douro y Águeda National Park and although the road was straight we were climbing steadily all of the time and eventually we found ourselves in an elevated position above the clouds and that is the first time I can remember doing that since I went to the top of Mount Teide in 1989 on the island of Tenerife.

Eventually we arrived in the border town of La Fregenada and then the road descended quickly and steeply through a succession of hairpin bends down towards the Douro and the border with Portugal.  The scenery was dramatic as we clung to the side of the mountain and dropped into the bottom of the narrow river valley and once at the bottom crossed the Águeda into Portugal at the same place as it flowed into the Douro.

We drove into the Portuguese town of Barca de Alva and turned north to follow the river on the edge of the National Park.  The sun was shining now and the river looked splendid as it reflected the golden yellow of the last of the leaves clinging to the trees and we followed a twisting road for a few kilometres stopping every so often to admire the views.

For one hundred and twelve kilometres the river forms part of the national border between Spain and Portugal and is a region of steeply sloping mountains and narrow canyons making it an historical barrier for invasions and a linguistic dividing line between two nations.  This was a scenic and dramatic part of the journey, across the river in Spain the river valley was heavily wooded, green and verdant but on the Portuguese side it was carefully managed with fields of olive trees and vines for growing grapes for port wine.

The Douro is one of the most important rivers of the peninsula and has been regularly dammed to provide hydro electricity for both Spain and Portugal.  After about fifteen kilometres we arrived at one of these the Barragem de Saucelle and crossed over it back into Spain stopping at a tourist information centre that was glad to see someone and asking for directions along the way.  The dam forms part of the hydroelectric system known as the Duero Drops, along with the Castro, Ricobayo, Suacelle and Villalcampo dams of Spain, and the Bemposta, Miranda and Picote dams of neighbouring Portugal.

From the river there was a long climb to the top of the ravine using long raking hairpin bends with magnificent views at every twist and then once at the top the road levelled out and we took a direct route through the National Park towards the town of Saucelle.  This was different again, with lush green fields, wild animals and dry stonewalls that made it reminiscent of the Peak District or Bodmin Moor.  After Saucelle we continued to Barruecopardo where we thankfully came across a tiny garage and bought some fuel and then struck north again through the park heading for the river and the lakes.

We drove a long time without finding either through a succession of dusty little towns that weren’t expecting visitors at this time of the year and the men on street corners watched with interest as we threaded our way along the route towards our objective.  We drove through the towns of Trabanca and Almendra and caught glimpses of water through the trees but it was clear that the water level was very low and there were lots of fields that should be submerged but instead were green and lush and strewn with boulder debris and interesting rock formations.

A Life in a Year – 5th November, Ciudad Rodrigo and The Hotel Molina de Águeda

A few weeks after returning from Castilla-la Mancha to the south of Madrid we were returning to Spain and this time to Castilla y Leon to the north of the capital.  We had been here in March this year to Ávila and Segovia but this time we were going further north and west, flying in to Valladolid and staying in the small city of Ciudad Rodrigo.  We had been looking forward to this because Castilla y Leon is as far away from the coastal strip as it is possible to get and is home to half of Spain’s cultural heritage sites including seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, over two hundred castles and eleven magnificent cathedrals.  It is the birthplace of the Spanish language, which after Chinese and Hindi is the third most common language in the World just ahead of English.

We had a late morning flight and the plane took off into a crisp blue sky with scattered clouds over fresh green fields and autumn gold deciduous woods that looked as though they were lying under a generous sprinkling of brown sugar.  As we flew south the clouds increased and there was nothing to see until we began to descend toward Valladolid where they began to break into various patchy fragments and below us we could see large colourful fields, russet, grey, cream and yellow broken now and again by bottle green forests, shimmering blue lakes and occasional villages with ochre tiled roofs.

Valladolid airport is only small with limited facilities but there was a sign apologising for this and promising imminent improvements.  We collected a steel grey Seat Ibiza from the Avis rental car office and set off immediately on the two hundred-kilometre drive to Ciudad Rodrigo.

There were plenty of things to stop and see along the way but it was mid afternoon and we were in a hurry to get to our destination so we took the Autovia de Castilla and with virtually no traffic to share the road with had an easy journey all of the way. We were crossing the Meseta, the great central plain of interior Spain, which at two hundred and ten thousand square kilometres makes up forty percent of the country and has an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres. It is split in two by the Sistema Central, the Guadarrama and Gredos mountain ranges, creating Old Castile to the north (Castilla y Leon) and New Castile to the south (Castilla La Mancha). The northern ‘submeseta’ is the higher of the two at over eight hundred metres and coming from below sea level in Lincolnshire I worried that we might require oxygen cylinders.

After about half way we passed by Salamanca and we could see its golden coloured cathedrals standing proud and high above the city and after that the landscape began to change. We left behind the pretty coloured fields and entered a different environment of green fields and woodlands and more and more livestock.  After a couple of hours of really enjoyable motoring we came to Ciudad Rodrigo, which is the last city in Spain before reaching Portugal, a fortress city built to protect the western border of the country and as we approached we could see the walled city and its fortifications standing on a rocky outcrop in a commanding defensive position.

I knew roughly where the hotel Molina de Águeda was and as we kept an eye open for directions Kim had another navigational fluke and spotted a half hidden sign that signposted our destination.  As we pulled into the car park there were a few spots of rain but it came to nothing and there were blue skies above us as we unloaded the car and went inside to reception.  It was a very nice hotel indeed located in an old water mill on the river Agueda, elegantly refurbished and surrounded by woods and we had a good room on the front with a nice view of the river and the old city about a kilometre away.


It was a pleasant evening, not cold, but the sort of temperature when local people need to put on a coat, hat and scarf but shirt sleeve weather for those of us from northern Europe with thicker blood.  We needn’t have worried about finding somewhere to eat because there was plenty of choice and the place was really busy with families out for a Sunday night on the town.  We found a lively tapas bar where everyone was watching the ‘You’ve been framed’ bullfighting show that we had seen last month in Chinchón and the place was really hectic.  We were the only overseas visitors in the place but we didn’t feel uncomfortable and we found a table and ordered food.  Unfortunately they were so busy that they made a mistake with the order and we only got half of it but it didn’t matter, we weren’t especially hungry anyway and at least it made it a cheaper night out.

A Life in a Year – 30th October, Barcelona and Antoni Gaudi

I visited Barcelona in October 2005 before I had really heard about or fully appreciated Art Nouveau or Antonio Gaudi so this place came as a real surprise.  On a sightseeing day I was walking along the Passeig de Gràcia part of the Illa de la Discòrdia in the Eixample district of Barcelona and heading for the Casa Milà, which is Gaudi’s most famous creation when across the stret I saw the most amazing building that I have ever seen that turned out to be the Casa Batlló, recently restored as a museum and open to the public. 

Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet was a Catalan architect with a Catalan name which quite frankly is a bit of a mouthful so thankfully he is usually referred to by the simplified Spanish translation, Antonio Gaudí.   He  belonged to the Modernist Art Nouveau movement and was famous for his unique style and highly individualistic designs.  He designed Casa Batlló, in a prosperous middle class district of Barcelona, for a wealthy city Aristocrat who was carrying out a refurbishment of the property that had originally been built in 1877. The lower levels of the house were designed for the owner and the upper floors were for renting and the refurbishment took place between 1905 and 1907.

The local name for the building is Casa dels ossos, literally the House of bones and the building has a visceral, skeletal organic quality. The building looks very remarkable and like everything else that Gaudí designed, only identifiable as Modernisme or Art Nouveau in the broadest sense. The ground floor, in particular, is rather astonishing with tracery, irregular oval windows and flowing sculpted stone work.  It seems that the objective of the designer was to avoid straight lines completely. Much of the façade is decorated with a mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles that begins in shades of golden orange and moves and merges liquidiciously into greenish blues.

Caso Batlló is a unique and fabulous building that defies any sort of description and is a building that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.  It is a wonderful riot of style and outrageous architectural ideas and designs.  Every room is a treasure and the attention to detail is immaculate.  My favourite part of the building was the roof which is arched and is likened by students of Gaudi to the backbone of a dragon.  A common theory about the building is that the rounded feature to the left of centre, terminating at the top in a turret and cross, represents the sword of Saint George the patron saint of Catalonia, which has been plunged into the back of the dragon.

I know that we think of St George as an English Saint but a lot of the rest of Europe has claimed him as well because St. George is also the patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia and I wouldn’t mind betting that all of them will do an awful lot more to celebrate 23rd April every year than we do!  We English do tend to ignore Saint George and take him a bit too much for gratnted.

Like a lot of artistic people Gaudi was rather eccentric and because of his ragged attire and empty pockets, many cab drivers refused to pick him up as he walked about the city for fear that he would be unable to pay the fare.  On 7th June 1926 Gaudi was run over by a tram and because no one recognised him he was taken to a pauper’s hospital.  His friends found him the next day but when they tried to move him into a nicer hospital, Gaudi refused, reportedly saying “I belong here among the poor.”  He died three days later on 10th June and was buried in the midst of his unfinished Cathedral, La Sagrada Família which even now remains unfinished and is due for completion in 2026, a hundred years after his death.

A Year in a Life – 22nd October, A Little Bit of Spain in Africa

The Hispano-Moroccan War was fought from Spain’s declaration of war on Morocco on 22nd October 1859 until the Treaty of Wad-Ras on 26th April 1860. It began with a conflict over the borders of the Spanish city of Ceuta and was fought in northern Morocco.

Today, Spain consists of a number of autonomous communities established in accordance to the second article of the Spanish Constitution which recognises the rights of regions and nationalities to self-government whilst also acknowledging the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’.  Currently, Spain comprises seventeen autonomous communities and two autonomous cities, both of which are on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. 

This is a legacy of the Spanish Protectorate system that was established in 1912 over the northern provinces of Morocco. This made some sense because many people lived here who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively after the end of the Reconquista.

The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 with the uprising of the Spanish troops stationed in África (as the Protectorate was informally known in the Spanish military parlance) under the command of Francisco Franco against the Republican Government and these troops became the core of the Nationalist Army.  Because the local Muslim troops had been among Franco’s earliest supporters, the protectorate enjoyed more political freedom than Franco-era Spain proper after Franco’s victory, with competing political parties and a Moroccan nationalist press, criticizing the Spanish government.

In 1956, when French Morocco became independent, Spain discontinued the Protectorate and surrendered the territory to the newly independent kingdom on 7th April while retaining the plazas de soberanía, Ifni and other colonies outside Morocco, such as Spanish Sahara.

Unwilling to accept this, the Moroccan Army of Liberation waged war against the Spanish forces in the Ifni War of 1958, spreading from Sidi Ifni to Rio de Oro, gained Tarfaya.  In 1969, Morocco obtained Ifni.  Today Morocco continues to object to Spanish possessions on mainland Africa and claims Ceuta and Melilla as integral parts of the country, considering them to be under foreign occupation, comparing their status to that of Gibraltar.

Ceuta remains an autonomous city of Spain and an exclave located on the north coast of North Africa and separated from the Iberian peninsula by the Strait of Gibraltar, it lies on the border of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and  along with the other Spanish exclave Melilla are the only Spanish territories located in mainland Africa.

A Life in a Year – 17th October, The Hanging Houses of Cuenca

From Chinchón to Cuenca was a distance of about one hundred and twenty kilometres and for most of it we followed the route of a new motorway still under construction.  There was barely any traffic on the original road so it left us wondering just why it was being built. 

La Mancha is an arid, fertile, elevated plateau of central Spain, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, stretching almost two hundred kilometres between the Montes de Toledo and the western spurs of the Cerros de Cuenca.  On average it is six hundred metres above sea level and the climate is continental, but with extreme weather fluctuations.  This is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Spain and agriculture is the primary economic activity, principally wheat, barley, oats and vines, but it is severely restricted by the harsh environmental conditions that exist on account of its lack of rainfall, the harsh exposure to wind and sun and by the almost complete absence of trees.    In fact years of neglect and lack of investment have created a serious land erosion problem on these hot dry plains.

I am making it sound dull and unappealing and I must correct that immediately because this was absolutely not the case.  On the first part of our journey we negotiated a narrow road with hairpin bends and expansive views and then we dropped down to the parched flat plain.  On either side of the long straight road there were gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours.  Many of the fields were recovering from producing this year’s crops and others were lying fallow and this produced a stunning vista of subtle autumnal colours and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, cream, olive, grey lavender, gold and russet red all lying crushed under the burden of a vivid blue autumn sky. 

After roughly half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills it became more dramatic with steep sided hills and pine forests and busy rivers dashing madly through narrow gorges.  Eventually it stopped climbing and the landscape flattened and we made our final approach into Cuenca.  At first this wasn’t especially promising, Cuenca is a big city and capital of the fifth largest province in Spain and to reach the old town it was necessary to drive through the modern part, which wasn’t especially notable or exciting.

We drove directly to the very top of the old city and parked the car at a scenic point where there was a stunning vista stretching out below us.  The city was built here because the rocky outcrop of land lies between two deep river gorges, the Júcar and the Huécar and it made an excellent location for a defendable fortress.  We walked down from the car park towards the main Plaza where there were gaily coloured houses, shops and pavement cafés and bars and the city’s Cathedral that was completed in the thirteenth century but partly fell down in 1902 and over a hundred years later the rebuilding of the façade still remains to be fully completed. 

After this the Plaza settled back into a lazy Saturday afternoon and we moved on to see the rest of the city.  Following the route towards the edge of the gorge it was plain to see how the city had developed.  There was only limited space at the top of the rock so as it grew and it was unable to expand outwards the city went up instead and that explained the tall houses.  Even more dramatically it also went as far as it possibly could in making use of all available space and in the fifteenth century houses were built with rooms and balconies precariously overhanging the gorge above the Huécar River.  These are called the Las Casas Colgadas, the hanging houses, and are the most famous attraction in the city.

We returned to the top of the city stopping on the way to climb the castle walls and to admire the scenery of the gorges stretching out on either side of the city.  Climbing even further we reached the top and there were vantage points of the city from elevated craggy rocks where people were walking out and taking as much risk as they dare just to get the perfect photograph.

Cuenca is famous for birds of prey and overhead there were large birds that were riding the thermals and looking for lunch.  Some of them were buzzards, which are quite common in Northern Spain but later we saw something different that we later identified as the magnificent Spanish Imperial Eagle and we considered it a privilege to have seen them.

A Life in a Year – 15th October, A Bullfight in Chinchón

We arrived in Chinchón at about half past one and ignoring the edge of town tourist car parks steered the car towards the Plaza Mayor at the very centre of the town.  The streets were narrow but not nearly as challenging as those that we had negotiated last year in Carmona and it only took a couple of circuits of the back lanes, including driving up a one-way street the wrong way before we located our hotel, La Condesa de Chinchón (named after a painting by Goya), parked the car with some difficulty, because I cannot get the hang of reverse parking in a left hand drive car, and then presented ourselves at reception and checked in.

The Plaza was only a hundred metres or so from the hotel and when we arrived there we were surprised to find it being prepared for a bullfight.  Now, I would like to see a bullfight but this trip wouldn’t have been the best time because Christine is an animal lover and almost certainly wouldn’t have approved.  From the signs in the shop windows we established that the event would be on Sunday afternoon and we would be gone by then so we were relieved that Christine wouldn’t be here to get distressed about it.

The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies, called ‘claros’ and shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.  It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

We spent a few minutes soaking up the atmosphere and the sunshine and then we compared menu prices in the bars and selected the cheapest on the sunny side of the square and settled down for lunch at tables compressed between the back of the bullring grandstand and the front of an interesting tourist shop selling a miscellany of local craft products.

Sunday was the day of the bullfight and when we went for breakfast the final hectic preparations were in full swing.  Mickey saw the bulls arriving early in the morning and in the Plaza red and gold bunting, the colour of the Spanish flag, was being hung from the balconies surrounding the arena. There was a real buzz of expectancy about the place now and it was a real shame that we wouldn’t be there to experience it.

There were to be seven events and the fights involved three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes.  All bullfights follow the same pattern and these are the first two acts of a bullfight that are designed to weaken the bull before the final act of the show which always involves a series of intricate moves and daredevil passes by the matador before he makes his final lethal thrust between the bull’s shoulder blades.  If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the President of the fight that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail.  It is not a very fair fight it has to be said and each one comes to its inevitable conclusion with the death of the bull.

We walked through the Plaza and now the horses had arrived and were being immaculately groomed just outside the entrance to the square.  I was surprised at just how small they were but they looked strong and agile and by the time the attendants had plaited their manes and tidied their tales they were beginning to look immaculate.  The horse is the mount of the picador and is a specialised breed that is bred to work with livestock.  It is forbidden by the National Bullfighting Rules to use the indigenous Spanish breed of horse the Pura Raza Española, the favoured mount of medieval knights and later cavalry regiments, for use in bullfights.  This is because they are too valuable because, although these days horses rarely get badly hurt, the role of the horse is a dangerous one because it has to take the full impact of a five hundred kilo charging bull.

We returned to the hotel to pack and outside there were two white mini-buses full of men checking in at reception.  These it turned out were the stars of the show, the matadors and picadors and all of their support entourage.  In Spain these men are like Premiership football stars and they are so popular and famous that they even have their own web sites.  Fighting today were two dashing young matadors called Alejandro Talavante and Jose María Manzanares and the reception was beginning to fill up with expensive leather travelling cases, sheathed swords and yellow, magenta and crimson capes.  With a last look into the garden from the balcony before Alejandro moved in we could see a man working hard to clean the blood and guts off of the capes that were left there from the previous fight no doubt.