A Spanish road trip, reviewed

We had a car waiting at Madrid airport, we had a road map of Spain and we had a plan. Plans are good, but as the “wee tim’rous beastie” of Robert Burns’ poem knows only too well, the best laid plans “gang aft agley”. Part of our plan was to bring the road map with us, but that’s the thing about packing in a hurry. The road map was gathering dust on the dining table back in the Netherlands, but we still had a car and a plan…and that seemed sufficient to have fun in Spain.

The weather changed our plans as well. The unexpected cold rain of earlier in our trip finally giving way to more traditional southern Spanish weather as we headed to Cordoba – something we did earlier than intended. The hills of Aragon will have to wait for another time.

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

A Spanish bull sign, Extremadura, Spain

I love being in Spain. It’s easy to over-romanticise given the nature of Spanish politics, past and present, and the terrible impact of the economic crash; but I’m not the first northern European to have formed an unhealthy attachment to Spanish culture, seemingly little changed even in this era of globalisation. Where else can you be sipping a coffee in a small cafe, while next to you several locals down large (and rough) Spanish brandies at 8am on a Tuesday before they head off for a, what I imagine is a less than productive, day at work?

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

Painted doorway, Madrid, Spain

So what would be my top five recommendations from our Spanish road trip? It’s hard to whittle down so many wonderful places and experiences, but here goes…

Semana Santa in Malaga

Malaga was an unexpected pleasure – great food, great nightlife, a brilliant Picasso museum, wonderful history – Semana Santa an unforgettable experience. Before visiting I’d only thought of Malaga as part of the benighted and blighted Costa del Sol of my nightmares. Now, I’d go back in a flash. Semana Santa was just the cherry on top…an incredible festival lasting a full week. The town seems never to sleep; when it does it’s a sleep brought on by the exhaustion of too much partying – a party where tradition merges with faith, merges with modernity. It’s incredibly atmospheric.

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Semana Santa, Malaga, Adalusia, Spain

Chasing Quixote in Castilla-La Mancha

It’s no surprise that there is something quixotic about the red earth, white windmills and monumental castles of Castilla-La Mancha. It’s a word given to the world by Cervantes’ most famous literary creation, a dreamer of fantastical and romantic dreams, for whom the baked landscape of this off-beat region seems entirely fitting. Toledo, former home of Spanish kings and centre of the Catholic Church in Spain, is a must, as are the hanging houses of Cuenca; alternatively, tilt at windmills in Consuegra, or visit a piece of northern Europe in Almagro. Most of all, travel the narrow, near deserted roads through this mesmerising region.

Windmills above Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Windmills above Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

Cordoba, the City of Light

People visit Spain just to see Cordoba, to walk its medina-like streets and marvel at the magnificent Mezquita. It’s worth making the journey. Spain wears its history on its sleeve, nowhere more so than Cordoba, where Spain’s Moorish and Christian histories collide and merge. The Mezquita can get crowded, so try to get there at 8am when the doors open, entrance is free and tour groups aren’t allowed for a whole hour. You won’t be alone, but you will be able to absorb some of the genuine majesty of this Islamic architectural masterpiece in relative peace and quiet. Divine.

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

View over the Mezquita and Catholic Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

Los Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia

The White Villages of Andalusia are beautiful reminders of Spain’s history and traditions; it helps that many of the most picturesque villages sit inside the mountainous Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. The stunning landscape, dotted with Pueblos Blancos, is like in a fairytale. Many of the villages include ‘de la frontera’ as part of their name, testimony to their location and role as fortified outposts on the boundary between the Christian north and Muslim south up until 1492. Spring is the best time to visit, the landscape is coming back to life and there aren’t so many tourists, or tour buses, on the roads.

Casares, Andalusia, Spain

Casares, Andalusia, Spain

…and finally…

Madrid

For my money, Europe’s most vibrant and interesting capital city. True, I’ve not visited every capital city in Europe, but I’ve been to enough to know that it would take something pretty special to dislodge Madrid from the place it has in my heart. Consider the grand Hapsburg architecture, a multitude of world-class museums and galleries, superb food, relaxed and friendly people, and a nightlife to rival anything Europe’s other capitals have to offer…what’s not to love about Madrid? Plus, for a big city, it has to count as one of Europe’s most affordable. Take to the streets and explore at leisure.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Almagro and the breathtaking Calatrava Castle

Heading south, our minds on the glories of Córdoba and the delights of Semana Santa in Malaga (we’d been told that only Sevilla can rival Malaga for the magnificence of its Easter celebrations), we set off through the dry, red landscape of Castilla-La Mancha for fabled Andalusia. We’d decided to make one final stop in the land of Don Quixote, in a small town that defies expectation, a place unlike any other in this region, with a history to match: Almagro.

Almagro was put on the map by one of those religious-military orders in which the medieval period seemed to specialise. The Order of Calatrava, Spain’s oldest military order, were granted a town charter at the start of the 13th Century. They were also responsible for giving their name to the truly breathtaking castle that lies a few kilometres outside of the town. It would be an entirely different influence that would leave its mark on Almagro however, not Spanish but German.

The thing that differentiates Almagro from other Spanish towns is its Plaza Mayor, featuring 16th Century arcaded and colonnaded green wood-framed houses down two sides of the rectangular ‘square’. The whole scene belongs architecturally more to northern Europe than deepest Castilla-La Mancha. This is thanks to the unlikely presence of the Fugger family. The Fuggers were European bankers extraordinaire, immensely rich and powerful, they bankrolled Charles I of Spain – it was their money paid for Charles’ election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.

Charles I of Spain was a Habsburg. Making him also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled not only over Spain, but swathes of Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands. Charles was at constant war with the French, and France’s allies, the Ottoman Empire. It was Charles who stopped the Ottomans from capturing Vienna in 1529. This cost a lot of money. In return for funding his wars, Charles gave the Fuggers (amongst other things) the rights to a mine near to Almagro. Members of the family moved in and brought their own architects along.

As well as building Spain’s most unusual Plaza Mayor, the Fuggers patronised the arts. Today, Almagro is home to the best preserved Corral de Comedias dating from the Spanish Golden Age – and the only one still hosting theatrical productions. The Corrales de Comedias were open air theatres that blossomed throughout Spain in the 16th Century: walking around the theatre you get a sense of the intimacy of the theatrical experience. It feels a bit like the Globe, only square where the Globe is round.

Almagro is only a small place of around 8,000 people, but it punches above its weight when it comes to food as well as history. There are plenty of places to sample local dishes, I don’t recall the name of the restaurant we ate at but it had the best ‘young’ Manchego cheese I’ve ever tasted (and I’m rather fond of Manchego cheese). We liked Almagro so much we decided to stay the night: luckily the wonderful Almagro Parador is both conveniently located and housed in a former 17th Century convent.

Early the next day we headed south again stopping only at the Castelo de Calatrava. You can see the castle long before you arrive at the winding track that takes you up an absurdly steep hill, upon which this giant fortress is located. It is like a Hollywood version of a European castle, only real. At the centre of the castle is a beautiful vaulted monastery church, illuminated by a large circular window. It’s rumoured that Moorish captives built the church. The views over Castilla-La Mancha’s plains are astonishing.

Standing on the battlements looking over the surrounding countryside, the importance of this fortress becomes clear. This was a vital Moorish citadel, but it was also home to a sizeable population and included a medina during the Caliphate of Cordoba. After swapping hands a couple of times, it was permanently taken by Christian forces in 1212. The castle’s population shrank under Christian rule, many of the knights preferring the comforts of Almagro over the hardships of castle life.

Heading south again, the Mediterranean beckoning, we passed unnoticed into Andulucia, Moorish Cordoba our next stop…

Windmill spotting in Consuegra

Seen from a distance the windmills that line the Cerro Calderico ridge lend credibility to Don Quixote’s belief that he was facing battle with monstrous creatures. Under a hot and hazy Castilla-La Mancha sun, it seems perfectly reasonable that Cervante’s most famous literary creation might have mistaken windmills for giants and charged them, lance in hand, Sancho Panza following on behind.

Draped across the line of the ridge the twelve windmills of Consuegra are a dramatic sight, and tick just about every Don Quixote cliché imaginable. These are probably the most famous windmills in Spain, and it is easy to see why. Despite their fame there were only a couple of groups of visitors, and the scene was peaceful and felt untouristy.

It isn’t just the windmills that lend the scene an air of romanticism. The Cerro Calderico is also home to the Castillo de Consuegra, parts of which date to Moorish times but mostly dates from just after the Reconquista in the 12th Century. The castle was the regional base for the Order of Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, a religious-military order better known as the Knights Hospitaller. The castle was of strategic importance and the Hospitallers were granted revenue from a tax on the city of Toledo to completely reconstruct it, improving its defences as they went.

The castle fell into disrepair in the 18th Century and was partially destroyed during Napoleon’s Peninsular War in 1813. Luckily for the modern tourist the local town council had the foresight to reconstruct the castle in the 1960s. Today it offers spectacular views over the plains below, across the windmills strung along the ridge and down to the small town of Consuegra. It is a glorious place to visit. In August each year the town holds a reenactment of the Battle of Consuegra, when Christian forces captured the castle. One thing makes this battle stand out, El Cid’s son died in the fighting.

The windmills themselves date from the 16th Century onwards and at least a couple were still being used in the 1980s. Some are open to the public, although not the day we were there; like their Dutch peers, they all have names. After clambering around the castle we strolled amongst the windmills along the full length of the ridge. It’s an atmospheric place, evoking a deep sense of the history of this region.

We made our way back to the car and popped down the hill into Consuegra itself. There isn’t much to the town but it has a lovely main square and a couple of interesting churches. In that very Spanish, very surprising way, each October the town springs into life when it hosts a Saffron Festival. This area is famous for saffron, and I can only imagine what the surrounding countryside must look like when the purple crocus flowers are in bloom. We had a snack and a cup of coffee before heading further south through yet more harsh Don Quixote landscapes towards Almagro.

Toledo, city of swords and marzipan

Toledo may well be an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but take away the dramatic location, intense history, beautiful architecture and superb culinary scene, and what are you left with? Tourist shops selling bizarre collections of swords and foodstuffs crafted from marzipan. That’s what. I will come clean, I hate marzipan. Its intense almond flavour ruined almost every Christmas I had as a child. I still have issues with Xmas cake. I’m not especially fond of swords either, but have less experience of them, and in Toledo’s defence it was once renowned for making the finest steel (and swords) in Europe.

Toledo’s choice of confectionary may be unfortunate, combining it with swords plain bizarre, but I can forgive wonderful Toledo just about anything. This is after all a city National Geographic described as “suspended between heaven and earth”, a description that you can only truly appreciate when you view the town from outside the city. Built on a hill and surrounded on three sides by the Rio Tejo, the city builds upwards until it peaks with the spires of the Cathedral and towers of the Alcazar.

We didn’t have long in Toledo, just enough time to get a flavour of what this former Spanish Imperial capital city has to offer and to make a note in the ‘places to return to’ column. Walking the narrow medieval streets it is hard not to feel like you’ve slipped back in time, something reinforced by the lack of modern architecture. Toledo may have cars crammed down impossibly narrow roads, but new building is restricted by its status as a National Monument – given to it by General Franco and sparing it the ravages of 1970s urban planning.

Toledo had a special place in Franco’s heart. During the Civil War, Nationalist forces withstood a vicious siege by Republican forces. The fight centred on the Alcazar, where Franco’s forces held out desperately; the bombardment from the Republicans reduced the building to rubble. Franco sent a relieving force to Toledo, an act now credited with prolonging the war. Had he headed straight to Madrid years of bloodshed might have been avoided. After the war Franco had the Alcazar rebuilt, and the town’s Civil War role and long history saw it declared a National Monument in 1941.

Toledo was founded during the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsular and its history is glorious. Conquered by the Moors in 711, the town grew and flourished as a strategic crossroads and a centre of learning. The town fell to Christian forces in 1085, upon which it was made the seat of the Catholic Church in Spain, giving it a status that ensured it grew ever more important and wealthy. It became the seat of the Spanish monarchy until Felipe II decided to move to Madrid. History has left behind a superb architectural legacy, including buildings like the Alcazar which date from Moorish times, and a wealth of incredible churches.

There are also some remnants of Toledo’s third defining culture, Judaism. The Iglesia de Santa María la Blanca was the oldest synagogue in Toledo, but was eventually turned into a church following religious persecution in the 14th and 15th Centuries, prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. During Islamic and early Christian rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully and reasonable harmoniously. This ended in the 15th Century, and Toledo stopped being known as the city of ‘three cultures’. Today Santa Maria la Blanca is a museum preserved as a synagogue by the Catholic Church, as if that isn’t weird.

The city is something of a maze, and one of the joys of being here is just getting lost in the alleys and lanes; finding yourself in small plazas, occasionally getting splendid views over the city and discovering some of the multitude of churches. If you’re ever in Toledo try to find your way to the Iglesia de San Ildefonso, which as well as having a lovely interior has spectacular views over the town. It’s a bit of clamber to get up there, but worth every breathless step.

Into the heartlands of Castilla-La Mancha

This is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza country, and the tourist board of Castilla-La Mancha is very reluctant to let you forget it. Driving through this arid-looking region, references to Cervantes’ two most famous creations can be spotted just about everywhere. As can Don Quixote’s greatest enemy, the windmills he so famously tilted at, erroneously believing them to be giants, their sails the giants’ hulking arms.

Coming from a country where windmills are somewhat grander than their Spanish counterparts might have dampened my enthusiasm for them. Thankfully schoolboy memories of reading Cervantes (in translation) were enough to make the sight of squat, white Spanish windmills on the horizon thrilling. The Dutch connection doesn’t end there; many interpret Don Quixote (in part, at least) as a critique of Spain’s foreign policy and military occupation of The Netherlands during the Eighty Years War.

Despite its literary associations, historic towns, dramatic castles, hilltop windmills and surreal landscapes of red soil dotted with rows of vines and olive trees, Castilla-La Mancha receives little of the tourist attention that Andalusia or the ‘costas’ to the south get. This ‘second rung’ status seems to be underlined by my two guidebooks, one of which dismisses this fascinating region with barely concealed contempt; the other reserves one of its thinnest sections for Castilla-La Mancha – a mere 29 pages, compared to 126 pages for Andalusia.

Driving through this vast region on quiet rural roads it often feels like you’ve wandered into an empty space on the map. You can go for hours without seeing much in the way of ‘life’. The roads are empty, often arrow straight, and the villages and small towns you pass through define the word siesta: sleepy, dusty and with an air of abandonment, but always with a disproportionately enormous church hinting at a more populous past. It’s like being in a Lorca play.

Leaving lovely but chilly Cuenca behind, we meandered around the countryside, visiting the windmills of Campo de Criptana before spending the night in Belmonte. Belmonte is a sleepy place, home to a couple of thousand people and shrinking – it has lost a third of its population in the last 30 years. Like so much of the world, Spain’s demographic present is from the countryside to the town. This is true everywhere, but in Castilla-La Mancha you get the sense that entire populations are missing.

Belmonte does, however, have a truly magnificent 15th Century castle standing imposingly on top of a hill overlooking the town. The castle features in Don Quixote, a place where the eponymous hero charges a windmill.

The castle is also strongly associated with Empress Eugenie of France, who came originally from Granada. Eugenie had the misfortune to be married to Emperor Napoleon III, who not only lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but was humiliatingly captured by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan and lost his throne as well. The Imperial family were officially exiled to England, but Eugenie regularly returned to her Spanish homeland and stayed at Belmonte Castle on a number of occasions. Her ghost is said to wander the corridors mournfully contemplating what might have been.

We’d arrived late to Belmonte and nothing much seemed open. Luckily the Palacio Buenavista Hospederia, a lovely hotel in a converted 16th Century building, had a good restaurant. It also gave us a room providing great views as a violent, short-lived storm blew across the town creating a dramatic view of the castle.

A walk through Medieval Cuenca

A few years ago there was much anticipation (or fretting, depending upon your view of these things) that a newly opened high speed rail link from Madrid to Cuenca would result in the town finally taking centre stage on the tourist trail. The fear was that this small and quiet town would suddenly be inundated with marauding tourists making the place look untidy. Until then the beautiful, and more easily reached, city of Toledo had been Castilla-La Mancha’s destination of choice for tourists.

March may not be the best time to test this theory, but while tourism is definitely on the rise, out of season it is pretty low key. The narrow alleys and cliff top trails of this charming town were often free of people. Summer, I’m told, is a different matter.

Comparisons between Toledo and the smaller, cliff hugging town of Cuenca don’t really work. They’re very different places, as a visitor the experience you have can’t truthfully be compared. I loved wandering the streets of Cuenca, stopping into some of the lively bars and restaurants on and around the main square, and generally absorbing the timeless atmosphere of the town. The two towns have similar populations, yet Toledo feels cosmopolitan while at heart Cuenca feels like a big village.

The old, historic centre of the town perches high on cliffs that tumble vertically down to the two rivers, the Huécar and the Júcar, that cut through the rock to form the gorges on either side. We stayed just up the hill from the Plaza Mayor in the Hotel Leonor de Aquitania, itself perching on a cliff with spectacular views of the gorge below. I got up early and walked through deserted streets to the top of the town to take in the fantastic views. The sun finally broke through the cloud to illuminate houses and churches built from yellow sandstone.

In the early morning it is a peaceful place to absorb the panorama, only occasionally interrupted by the chatter of people walking in the gorge. From the top of town there is a well marked trail down the cliff side. The trail brings you to the Puente de San Pablo, the iconic red metal bridge that spans the gorge to connect the town and the towns most expensive hotel, the Parador de Cuenca, itself housed in a former 16th Century monastery. From the bridge you get wonderful views of the equally iconic Casas Colgadas, Cuenca’s hanging houses.

Walking back over the bridge a road takes you through one of the old town gates. From here we explored the town lower down the hill before finally wending our way back into the Plaza Mayor. The dominant feature of the plaza is the slightly bizarre looking Gothic Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Gracia.

Construction started on the cathedral in 1182, shortly after Cuenca was captured from Moorish forces. Its development has seen a mismatch of styles squeezed together, culminating in the Gothic facade added in 1902. The new facade was necessary because the old one collapsed. 827 years after construction began, it remains a work in progress.

Cuenca is an atmospheric place during the day, at night it is a place that feels alive with medieval intrigue. Few people were on the streets; in the quiet night air sound travels a long way in the narrow alleys and amplifies up from the gorge. Footsteps or voices echo up and down the cobbled lanes, making a stroll back from the local bar after a couple of glasses of tinto a marvellously eerie experience.

Hanging out in Medieval Cuenca

Perched on a rocky outcrop high above two gorges forged by the Júcar and Huécar rivers, Cuenca is as dramatic a sight as any in Spain, especially the casas colgadas, houses that hang precariously from the steep rock over the gorge below. Walking its narrow, medieval streets the evocative history of this fabulous town seems to seep out of the stone walls and cobbled streets. I’d wanted to visit Cuenca for years after seeing a panoramic photo in the travel pages of a newspaper, despite the chilly March weather and occasional rain showers, it didn’t disappoint.

Cuenca is a beautiful place, full of atmosphere. It has a compact old town which is easy to stroll around, some excellent restaurants and lively, entertaining bars crammed full of locals and visitors alike. We had one of the best meals of our trip, fresh grilled octopus washed down with local artisan beer, in a small restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. The town also has a couple of really good museums, including the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español which occupies one of the casas colgadas.

We’d arrived on a Saturday and there was a buzz in the town as visiting Madrileños arrived for a weekend in the country. Cuenca is deservedly on the tourist trail, but on a weekend in late March we didn’t come across any other tourists who weren’t Spanish – which made watching the El Clasico game between Barcelona and Real Madrid in a local bar a lot of fun. Barcelona won, much to the disappointment of everyone in the bar except for two gleeful Catalans.

This is tapas country and every glass of wine or beer is accompanied by a sizeable portion of free tapas. I’ve always thought the Spanish approach to drinking the most civilised in the world: order a drink, get some free food, order enough drinks and you rarely need dinner. Although given how cheap a glass of wine is I don’t know how it can be economical. Elsewhere in Spain you might get olives, bread with cheese or chorizo; in Cuenca the tapas comes in large quantities and is largely pork-based. Delicious it may be, but after a couple of days I found myself saying no to yet more morcilla or pork scratchings.

Cuenca’s culinary delights are more than matched by its historical delights. Considered an exceptional medieval fortified town by UNESCO, it was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1996. The town dates back to Roman times, but it was the arrival of the Moors in the 8th Century that put it on the map; by the 11th Century it was a flourishing textile centre with grand fortifications making it a strategic point at the heart of the Caliphate of Cordoba. A near impregnable stronghold, the town finally fell to the Castilian forces of the Reconquista in 1177.

It may not show it today, but like much of Spain Cuenca suffered a steep decline from the 16th Century onwards. The grinding rural poverty, so poetically brought to life in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the oppression of the church, which came to typify the rural Spanish experience, was widespread in-and-around Cuenca by the early 20th Century. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cuenca was firmly in the Republican camp during the Spanish Civil War, and only surrendered to General Franco’s forces in the final days of the war.

Reprisals and imprisonment against Republican supporters were plentiful once Franco’s Nationalists took control. Some of these reprisals were revenge for the killing of priests (including Cuenca’s Bishop) and other Nationalist supporters during the Civil War. The whole of this region suffered huge economic decline in the post-Civil War period, and many of the inhabitants migrated to other regions of Spain. That trend has been reversed, and today Cuenca seems to be a prosperous little town with tourism increasingly contributing to the local economy.