The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso

The fountains in the grounds of the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso must be something special. When we bought our tickets, the woman who sold them to us made a big deal of telling us that the fountains, in all their magnificence, would be working at 5pm. I suspect that she was being sarcastic. It was 10am and, even if we weren’t flying back to the Netherlands before the water started flowing, the likelihood of anyone spending seven hours wandering around the palace and grounds in anticipation of the fountains, seemed far fetched.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

It was the first of several disappointments. Between the over-officious security guards who surreptitiously but very conspicuously followed us from room to room, and the gardens that were still clothed in their winter attire, La Granja de San Ildefonso might have ended up being an underwhelming experience. Luckily, the setting of the palace in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the extravagant Baroque architecture and the simply extraordinary gardens surrounded by extensive forests, more than made up for it.

Although it was founded in the mid-15th century as a summer retreat for Henry IV of Castile, the town of San Ildefonso only became the grand royal playground of Spanish monarchs in 1720. It was Philip V, the first Bourbon King of Spain, who bought it with the plan of building a summer palace that would rival the glories of Versailles where, as the grandson of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, he had been born. At immense cost to the public purse, that is exactly what he did, build a palace renowned throughout Europe.

The palace began life as a ‘simple’ cool summer retreat from the furnace-like heat of Madrid, but it ended up the home of the Spanish government for several months each year. It was repeatedly expanded and the nearby town grew to accommodate all the courtiers, civil servants and diplomats that trailed behind the royal household. Military barracks and vast stables were added, and even a royal glass factory was built in the town. Today, wandering the sleepy streets of San Ildefonso is almost as interesting as the palace itself.

The drive from Segovia to reach San Ildefonso took less than half an hour, although the satnav on our hire car did it’s best to make even that journey a Kafkaesque experience. We found somewhere close to the palace to park and, after fighting our way through an enormous school group, bought our tickets and passed through security into the palace interior. It’s certainly not one of the grandest palaces I’ve ever seen, but the interiors on the first floor are interesting, with ceilings covered in beautiful artwork.

The ground floor is less interesting – the rooms come with life-size statues, too many of which are plaster cast replicas – and we passed through quickly hoping to get into the gardens before they were flooded with schoolchildren. If the interiors are somewhat disappointing, the massive gardens really aren’t. The walk along the central avenue behind the palace passes a cascade of fountains (not working until 5pm) to a viewing point on a small hill. The views back to the palace are tremendous.

It was still early and there were few people around as we wandered lovely pathways through woodlands sprinkled with ornate fountains. Occasionally, we were given vistas down tree-lined avenues to snow-capped mountains in the distance. We eventually made our way back to the palace and went into the town to find somewhere for lunch. There was a small market but the town was still very quiet. It’s hard to believe this was once the epicentre of Spanish government.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

San Ildefonso, Spain

San Ildefonso, Spain

Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain

Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain

We had to get back to the airport for our flights, but our route wound steeply upwards on hairpin bends through the Sierra de Guadarrama, until we eventually reached the ski resort of Estacion Puerto Navacerrada. Here, on the boundary between Castile y Leon and Madrid, we admired the views back towards this fantastic Spanish region and made plans to come back.

Unearthing ancient history in beautiful Segovia

If the quiet nighttime streets in Segovia’s medieval heart are anything to go by, most people seem to visit this magnificent town on day trips from Madrid. During the day the streets buzz with activity, and tour groups crowd into the 12th century Alcázar, around the square beneath the monumental aqueduct, and through the narrow lanes that connect the two. At night though, the town has a different personality, the streets empty and the sound of footsteps on cobbles can be heard echoing in alleyways.

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

I’m glad we spent a night here, it allowed us to get a sense of the rhythm of life in the town. Perched high on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by walls and medieval gates, Segovia is an historic gem. By the time the Romans arrived around 80 BC, there had already been a settlement here for 700 years. When the Roman Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, they left behind the extraordinary aqueduct that is still the most impressive feature of the town.

Moorish invaders captured Segovia in the early 8th century, ushering in three hundred years of Islamic rule. It was recaptured by Alfonso VI of León and Castile in 1079, part of the centuries-long Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsular. It was shortly after this that Segovia’s other major attraction, the Alcázar, was built over the original Moorish fort, which in turn had been built on top of the Roman fort. It was to become one of the principle royal residences of Castile.

The Alcázar was the site of one of Spain’s foundational moments in 1474, when Queen Isabella I was proclaimed Queen of Castile. She would go on to marry Ferdinand II of Aragon, uniting Spain’s Christian kingdoms politically. Together they completed the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, and then commissioned Christopher Columbus to discover the Americas. The slightly odd Central European spires that adorn the Alcázar today, were added by King Philip II when he married Anna of Austria. Presumably to make her feel more at home.

We started our day with a walk through the quiet streets to the Plaza Azoguejo, over which towers the 28.5 metre high aqueduct. It truly is an amazing sight, not to mention an incredible feat of engineering. The whole thing stretched for 16km, delivering water from the River Frío into the heart of Segovia, and didn’t use any mortar or cement. We walked under the main arches of the aqueduct and then turned up some steps to follow the route it takes through the town.

It’s majestic and a little surreal, people’s houses co-exist ‘cheek by jowl’ with the arches as the aqueduct cuts through sleepy neighbourhoods. We strolled the full length of the remaining structure before wandering back downhill to the historic centre. We popped into the Mesón de Cándido, one of the town’s most famous restaurants, for a drink and then headed back through the town towards the Alcázar. Things were busier now, with plenty of tour groups milling around, but it’s fairly easy to lose the crowds if you avoid the main streets.

The Alcázar is a fantastical building, all narrow towers and pointy turrets, which is said (probably wrongly) to have been the model for the original Disneyland castle. We went to buy our tickets and the man behind the counter asked if we were European Union citizens. “Yes”, we said, “from the UK.” He gave us a pitying smile and said, “It’s free for EU citizens, but not for you for much longer.” Yet another reminder of the loss every British person will suffer when Brexit happens.

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Inside, the Alcázar is just as fantastical. The Hall of the Galley and Hall of the Kings, both have the most extraordinary ceilings, decorated with gold leaf and images of Kings and Queens past. We made our way around the building until we emerged into the sunlight outside the armoury. The views were spectacular, and it really gave us a clear idea of how the Alcázar is constructed on a cliff edge. All that history had given us an appetite, so we wandered back through the town to the Plaza Mayor for another tour around the tapas bars.

Segovia, Roman history and Golden Age glories

Our first sighting of Segovia was glorious. The magnificent city skyline, framed by the snow covered Sierra de Guadarrama, was breathtaking. Close up, the town becomes even more exquisite. As we drove into the centre in an attempt to find our hotel, we passed the ridiculously dramatic Acueducto de Segovia, a perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct that was built in the 1st Century AD, and has survived intact for close to 2,000 years. It’s an awe inspiring sight, that put me in mind of the Roman city of Jerash in modern-day Jordan.

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Segovia cathedral, Spain

Segovia cathedral, Spain

If a 2,000 year-old aqueduct was the only reason to come to Segovia, it would be more than enough. But this town of fewer than sixty thousand people, punches well above its weight in many other ways. The whole of the medieval old town is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Segovia is a place that perfectly embodies the history of Roman, Moorish and Christian Spain, and the grandeur of the country’s Golden Age, beginning with the Reconquista and encompassing the discovery and conquest of the New World.

Walking the streets of the ancient centre between the turreted 11th century Alcázar, the 16th century Gothic cathedral and the 1st century aqueduct, is a little like being in an open air museum, only one with far more life. Despite its many historic monuments, Segovia during the day is a vibrant place with pleasant squares where families gather, and narrow winding cobbled streets that ring with the sound of voices. At night it was much quieter, the action transferred indoors to a selection of excellent tapas bars and even better restaurants.

Segovia is a weekend destination for Madrileños, and has fabulous places to eat its legendary food. This is the home of the cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig, served with head and feet, and ‘carved’ using a plate. Not sure why, but that’s the way they do it in Segovia. Even more special though is the cordero lechazo asado, or the roasted leg of lamb. We ate this dish at La Concepción in the Plaza Mayor and it was truly delicious – they also do the finest carajillo I’ve ever had in Spain. Nobody comes to Segovia to lose weight apparently.

We were staying in the Hotel Convento Capuchinos, a former monastery and church that date from 1637. It was a fittingly historic place to spend the night and had views over the Río Eresma and valley below, including the 13th century Templar church of Vera Cruz. Built not long after the city had been captured from the Moors in 1079, it’s modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The day I made the effort to walk all the way down hill, and make the steep climb back up, to visit, it wasn’t open. This was a shame because the church was built, or so legend has it, to house a fragment of the cross that Christ was crucified upon. It was brought back to Spain from the Holy Land after one of the Crusades. Inside, the church is said to contain a unique chamber where new members of the Knights Templar would stand vigil, night and day, over this famous piece of wood as part of their initiation

We’d arrived in the late afternoon and once we’d found somewhere to park – always a challenge in medieval Spanish towns – we checked in and set off to unearth a tapas bar or two. Luckily for us, that is not difficult. The Plaza Mayor, which is dominated by the cathedral, has several good options running around the outside of the square. We started in one corner and worked our way around, stopping at places that looked good or had a crowd. We weren’t disappointed.

View from the cathedral, Segovia, Spain

View from the cathedral, Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

Afterwards, we were just in time to clamber up the bell tower of the cathedral before it closed. The views were magnificent, the whole town was laid out before us, as were the same snow capped mountains that we’d driven through to get here. From our vantage point we planned the next day’s excitement and then went to see if we could book a table for dinner at one of Segovia’s most popular restaurants, Restaurante José María. The  cochinillo asado was calling to us.

The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, revisiting Madrid

Madrid is a city that I’ve visited repeatedly. The heady mix of history, culture, food and nightlife have always appealed to my inner hedonist, but it’s also a relaxed city with a lot of parks and a way of life that seems more human than most cities. Large enough to  offer world class distractions, but small enough to feel intimate and friendly, is how I’ve always thought of Spain’s vivacious capital. Amidst the grand Hapsburg architecture, bustling plazas, top notch museums, leafy parks and buzzing neighbourhoods, Madrid is a city that has everything.

Of course, it also has many of the negatives of cities everywhere, and it was noticeable during our recent long weekend that the number of homeless and destitute seems to have multiplied significantly since our last visit in 2015. Staying close to the Plaza Tirso de Molina, this was only too obvious. Madrid is still dealing with years of austerity from the financial crisis, and it’s very visible on the streets.

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, Madrid, Spain

The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Musicians in the Rastro, Madrid, Spain

Musicians in the Rastro, Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

We arrived in the late afternoon and, after settling into the apartment, headed to the Plaza Mayor for a glass of something cold with some tapas. It might be touristy, but the Plaza Mayor is a wondrous introduction to the city. Perhaps the most perfect square in Spain? There was a time when bullfights were held here, today the closest you’ll get is a visit to La Torre del Oro, an Andalusian bar complete with bull heads and some of the most gruesome photos of toros getting revenge on matadors you’re likely to see – they could put you off your tapas.

We spent the evening bar-hopping in the increasingly trendy Chueca district. Once a rundown area, it has been completely rejuvenated as Madrid’s gay epicentre. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood that is home to some exceptional eating and drinking options, including the Mercado de San Miguel, an old market transformed by adding a couple of dozen bars and restaurants. For all the modernity, there are still some traditions that remain, just pop into the Taberna Ángel Sierra on Plaza de Chueca to be transported back in time.

We recovered the next day with breakfast in the Plaza Santa Ana. You know you’re in Plaza Santa Ana when you see the brilliantly white Reina Victoria, famed for being the hotel of choice for Spain’s best matadors. This is prime Hemingway territory, and off to one side is the Cervecería Alemana, where Hemingway claims to have shared a table with the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s a classic Madrid establishment, with world weary white-jacketed waiters who seem to have worked there for ever.

A morning spent in the botanical gardens and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum (one of Europe’s finest) was followed by a visit to the Atocha district. Like Chueca, when I first came to Madrid there was nothing very interesting in this district, but now it’s full of bars and restaurants. We walked off lunch through the narrow streets of Lavapiés. Perhaps the most bohemian of all Madrid’s barrios thanks to the high percentage of immigrants that have settled here. This is a fascinating area that retains a sense of its radical working class roots even as gentrification takes hold.

I haven’t been to the Sunday morning Rastro market for twenty years, but it was close to the apartment and handily en route to La Latina and the Royal Palace. My memory is of a genuine flea market with occasional antique stalls, but the modern Rastro seems to be an homogenised mash up of tourist memorabilia that you could get in almost any country on earth. We meandered amongst the uninspiring stalls before trying to find somewhere for an outdoor lunch in one of La Latina’s many plazas. On a sunny Sunday, that’s easier said than done.

Our plan had been to visit the Royal Palace, but it was closed due to a state visit. It’s pretty impressive from the outside, but that doesn’t give a sense of what awaits inside some of the palace’s two thousand rooms. Still we could at least wander through the palace gardens, which were busy with people soaking up the sun. We made our way back to the packed Puerta del Sol and rewarded ourselves with a drink and tapas in the Casa Labra. The next day we’d be off to Segovia, a much needed rest from a weekend in Madrid.

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Torre del Oro, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

La Torre del Oro, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

2017, a year of travel in the rear view mirror

One exception not withstanding, 2017 has been a European year. It’s been a lot of fun exploring new destinations – Burgundy in France, Fruska Gora in Serbia and Granada’s Islamic heritage in Spain; but it’s been even more fun revisiting places I last visited many years ago – the Czech Republic’s Prague, Sweden’s glorious Stockholm, not to mention that one exception, Argentina. In between there have been trips to England and Scotland, as well as around the Netherlands – a country that really punches above its weight.

It’s been a fun year, thanks for joining me on the journey, and I wish you all the best of travels for 2018.

The cheesiest of Dutch towns, Alkmaar

Alkmaar is an attractive and historic town that has thrived on cheese production. The town’s famed cheese market has been around for over 400 years and, provided there’s a steady supply of tourists, it seems unlikely to end any time soon. It’s definitely one of the more touristy things you can do in the Netherlands, but a little bit of ‘cheese’ never did anyone any harm.

Summer and Winter in the English Lake District

I headed across the North Sea with my bike for company to take take part in the Fred Whitton Cycle Sportive in May, and took the opportunity to hike the Vale of Grasmere while the Bluebells were in full bloom. More recently, winter hikes across frozen winter landscapes have included The Old Man of Coniston and Crinkle Crags. Proof that the Lake District is best at any time of year.

Revisiting the delights of Stockholm

It’s taken me over a decade to make the short journey to Stockholm. One long weekend later and all I could think was “Why?” This is, without any doubt, one of Europe’s finest cities. Built across several islands and surrounded by water on all side, crossing from one neighbourhood to another feels like you’re entering a different city. Once famed for high prices, the costs no longer seem so prohibitive and the food has been through a revolution.

Prague, a glorious city blighted by modern tourism

I loved Prague when I first ventured here a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is still one of the great cities of Europe, but the toll modern tourism is taking on the historic city centre and the Prague Castle area is eye-wateringly painful to observe. There are still pockets of calm away from the tour groups, but this visit clashed badly with my trip 25-years earlier.

Ghiga and Arran, Island hopping in Scotland

At 9.5 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, Gigha was a huge surprise. Rugged and wild, with a peculiarly warm microclimate that makes it very hospitable, I’d never even heard of it before going to a friends wedding on the island. Afterwards we explored the much bigger Arran Isle with it’s wealth of ancient history. The weather was even good, well until the final day.

Wine tasting along the Grand Cru Routes of Burgundy

France is an extraordinary country for many different reasons, none more so that the sheer diversity of its regions. We made a couple of trips to France this year, including to the marvellous cathedral town of Reims, but it was the beautiful and historic Burgundy, and its magnificent capital, Dijon, that really captivated us – the wine was just an added benefit.

Painting the town red, yellow and blue for De Stijl

To mark the anniversary of the De Stijl art movement, the best known proponent of which was Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, The Hague transformed itself into  an open air gallery that saw entire buildings become huge canvases for the familiar red, yellow and blue Mondrian designs. Even the piano in Central Station got a makeover.

Going back in time in Serbia’s Fruska Gora National Park

Serbia has a long and troubled history, no more so than in recent years after the fall of communism, but it is a surprising, fascinating and friendly country that deserves more international tourists. I visited the historic city of Novi Sad, but it was the landscape and cultural history of the nearby Fruska Gora National Park that made the trip special.

Seville, the beating heart of Andalusia

Spain is one of my favourite countries to visit, Andalusia one of my favourite regions and Seville my absolute favourite town (well, maybe tied for first place with Madrid). It’s almost cliche to say Seville is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, but there’s no denying there is something going on. A vast wealth of history, coupled with a fabulous cultural heritage and some of Spain’s best food. What’s not to love?

The gorgeous medieval town of Cesky Kumlov

I loved my travels in the Czech Republic, but the remarkably well-preserved town of Cesky Kumlov was a real highlight. Nestled between bends of the Vltava River, the town feels like it hasn’t changed much since the 15th century. It also boasts a dramatic castle, and is home to lots of good hotels and restaurants.

Exploring fjords from historic Bergen

Bergen is a gloriously historic town set in the most picturesque landscape imaginable. Venture outside the town and you can quickly find yourself walking on the roof of the world with vast panoramas over the surrounding mountains and fjords. Or, take a train, a bus and a boat, and another two trains, to explore the magical Nærøyfjord and the Flam railway.

Into the Andes, the Argentinian Lake District

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Argentina a few times now, but had never been to the renowned Lake District region. A visit to San Martin de los Andes and Bariloche made up for that oversight, and opened our eyes to this truly magnificent region. A broken big toe prevented much hiking but our tiny hire car took us to extraordinary places all the same.

Roman history on the beautiful Playa de Bolonia

The dunes behind the Playa de Bolonia hides one of southern Spain’s great surprises. Here, in an out of the way part of the Costa de la Luz, sits one of the most perfectly preserved Roman towns in Andalusia. Backed by green hills, it’s a dramatic sight, and gives the golden sands and aquamarine waters of this magnificent cove an even more dreamlike quality. I can think of worse places to build a town.

This may be the less popular Atlantic coast, but the beaches are both unspoilt and uncrowded, and the water is the same turquoise colour that you’d expect to find in the Caribbean. The wide arch of Playa de Bolonia stretches for over three kilometres, from a headland in the south to a huge and dramatic sand dune in the north. The cove is a beautiful sweep of unspoiled coastline that is worth exploration.

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

We’d brought a picnic to have on the beach, but first we walked its length and climbed the dunes at the northern end to get fantastic views. There were a scattering of fishermen, some dog walkers and very few other people despite the glorious weather. We stopped for a drink in one of the pleasant beach bars after descending the dunes, and then plonked ourselves down to have our picnic.

This was the last day and our final stop on this road trip. In the morning we’d have to be back at Malaga airport to fly home. A day at Playa de Bolonia seemed like a perfect way to end the trip. After lunch we wandered over to the Baelo Claudia, the well preserved Roman town that was founded here in the second century BC, thanks to its strategic position for trade between North Africa across the Straights of Gibraltar.

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Playa de Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Roman city of Baelo Claudio, Bolonia, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

It became a wealthy city built on the trade in salted fish and the production of a liquid that fuelled the Roman Empire: garum. A pungent fermented fish sauce made with salted fish intestines that became liquid, garum was hugely popular in Ancient Rome. This smelly concoction was the condiment of choice across the Empire, and Baelo Cladio grew rich as a consequence.

Declining trade and a devastating earthquake saw the city abandoned in the 6th century, but its isolated position and relative obscurity have meant that what remains today is well preserved. It certainly makes for a striking sight sitting just off the beach with a backdrop of hills.

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

We’d driven through those same hills to get here after we’d had an early morning walk on the famous Playa de Zahara de los Atunes. At over 6 kilometres in length the beach near the former fishing village of Zahara, stretches as far as the eye can see. There was little activity other than fishermen and dog walkers, and we walked with only the wind for company.

You can see a wind farm from the beach, but beachside development has been kept to a minimum. It’s a welcome result of planning laws that prevent developers from building high rise monstrosities. In summer there’s a lot of life, and nightlife, in the communities along the beach; out of season, it feels almost abandoned. If your idea of ‘beach’ is more ‘combing’ than ‘lounging’, then this stretch of the Costa de la Luz is well worth a visit.

“Kiss me, Hardy”, gorgeous Cape Trafalgar

The Costa de la Luz is a wonderfully relaxed place to spend a few days. This coast is as far removed from the mass tourism of Spain’s Mediterranean flesh pots as it’s possible to get – conceptually speaking. Kilometre after kilometre of golden sand stretches out along the wild and rough Atlantic coast, there are rolling dunes rather than high-rise apartments and hotels behind beaches that, outside of the summer season, are almost never crowded.

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Until recently tourists to this area were predominantly Spanish, and although tourism is definitely more international these days, it’s of the low-intensity, low-impact sort. Fishermen still arrive early and claim their spot on the beach, surfers emerge some time later and take to the waves; there are low-key, easy-going beach bars and seafront restaurants serving up delicious seafood. The pace of life seems permanently set to ‘slow’.

We arrived in Los Caños de Meca after the short drive from nearby Vejer de la Frontera. It was early morning and there was time to stroll along the beach towards the village of Zahora, which is home to several good seafront restaurants and bars. It wasn’t quite time for lunch so we carried on along the beach to a small prominantry, beyond which is another vast sweep of beach, Playa Mangueta.

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Lighthouse, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

After a long lunch, we made our way back towards Cape Trafalgar’s most iconic sight, its lighthouse. Standing 34m tall, and built 1860, the Cape Trafalgar lighthouse is the area’s most prominent landmark, visible from just about every direction. It may not have been built to commemorate one of the greatest naval battles of all time, but it has come to symbolise the spot at which Admiral Lord Nelson inflicted a decisive victory over a joint French and Spanish fleet.

In 1805, if you’d been stood where the lighthouse stands today, you would most likely have had a view of one of the most epic sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle of Trafalgar had far reaching consequences. It didn’t stop the land war in Europe, which Napoleon’s forces were dominating, but it did mean that Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain was cancelled and France wouldn’t be able to challenge British naval power for the rest of the war.

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Just before the Battle of Trafalgar there were 177,000 French troops preparing to invade across the English Channel. The French and Spanish ships fighting at Trafalgar were needed to break Britain’s dominance of the sea lanes and allow the invasion to take place. The loss of twenty-two ships of the line without the loss of a single British ship was a disaster for Napoleon.

Strolling Cape Trafalgar today, it’s hard to imagine the battle that raged out to sea. It lasted for hours, involved seventy-three ships, more than 45,000 men, and resulted in an enormous loss of life – the most famous of which was Admiral Nelson himself. We made our way back along the beach just as the sun was setting. It was one of those near-perfect sunsets: a brilliant golden orb plunging into a darkening ocean and framed by a blood-red sky. It seemed poetically symbolic of the battle itself.

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset, Cape Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, a spectacular pueblo blanco

Perched high on a hill and gleaming white under the intense Andalusian sun, you can see Vejer de la Frontera long before you make the journey up the winding road to enter the town proper. If the town makes an impression from afar, once you’re inside the narrow medina-like streets it becomes overwhelmingly atmospheric … even when you’re dragging your bags through the streets because the nearest available parking space is nowhere near the hotel.

The old part of Vejer is one of the most picturesque places I’ve visited in Andalusia – and it’s up against some stiff opposition. The winding lanes and alleyways, the whitewashed houses, ruined fort and ancient church are the stuff of historic novels, and Vejer has had an extraordinarily long history. Like nearby Cadiz, it was first a Phoenician town, then came the Carthaginians, followed by the Romans. The town was then ruled by the Visigoths until the arrival of the Moors.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

In 712 the Battle of Guadalete took place to the north of Vejer. It was a defining moment in the Moorish conquest of Spain. The ruling Visigoth armies led by King Roderic, were defeated by an Arab and Berber army. Roderic was killed along with many Visigoth nobles, leaving a power vacuum that allowed the Moors to attack and capture the Visigoth capital of Toledo. Vejer would be ruled by the Moors for the next 536 years.

It wasn’t until 1248 that the city fell to the Christian armies of Ferdinand III of Castile, after which it was a border town and fortress along the frontier with the parts of Spain that remained in Moorish hands. This is when it received the addition of ‘de la Frontera’ to its name. Even after the collapse of Moorish power, the town continued to be attacked by Barbary pirates – it’s close to the coast and was an easy target for Berber corsairs from the coast of North Africa.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

This long history has bequeathed Vejer many ancient traditions, including some not seen anywhere else in Spain. On one street a sculpture of a woman stares down from the wall, dressed in black, head covered, only one eye visible. This is a depiction of a cobijado, or ‘cover’, a burkha-like shroud. It may be a remnant of the Moorish past, or an item of clothing that originates in Catholic Spain. The jury is still out on that, but it’s a tradition that has been around for centuries.

It’s only in recent decades that women in Vejer stopped wearing the cobijado, but there are several reminders of the tradition dotted around the town. The cobijado was used to hide a woman’s features, a little like Spanish fans, and upper class women wore them to stop the sun from darkening their skin – no one wanted to have the skin of someone who worked in the fields.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Walking around the town uncovers lots of the hidden charms of this small, friendly place. It’s a town to relax and unwind in, with good restaurants and tapas bars, and little else in the way of excitement. We spent a day slowly exploring the atmospheric (and very quiet) streets, until we found a party that had spilled out onto the street from a local restaurant. The sudden hubbub of noise and activity seemed completely out of place.

In Vejer we pushed the boat out to spend a night at La Casa Del Califa on the Plaza Espana. It was a good decision, La Casa Del Califa is a piece of history in its own right. Taking it’s cue from the Moorish history of the town, the decor is Arabic opulence, a theme that runs through the hotel and extends to the superb restaurant, where you can swap Spanish cooking for excellent North African cuisine. Best of all, the rooftop terraces offer fantastic views over the town and countryside.

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Vejer de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

The beaches of Cadiz

If you live in northern Europe, there is something very exciting about being on a  beach in winter when it’s warm enough to pretend it’s summer. The weather in Cadiz made that possible. The beaches of Spain’s Atlantic coast are a bit wilder, and the water quite a bit colder, than their more famous Mediterranean counterparts, but they have a raw beauty that more than compensates. Plus, they only attract a fraction of the visitors.

If you’re visiting Cadiz it’s worth spending a day walking the beaches that spread south from the city. We got up early and drove to the Parque Natural Bahía de Cádiz, a large area of sandy beaches, freshwater lakes, marshes and salt flats, the salt from which has been used since 1100 BC. Phoenician traders who first settled this area exported it. The long wide beach makes for a wonderful early morning stroll.

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

We headed along the beach to the Punta del Boquerón, the warm sun was offset by a cooling breeze. Fishermen were lined up along the beach and a few hardy surfers were making their way into the water. In the distance I could see what looked like giant boulders on the beach, and off the coast was the island of Sancti Petri, home to the Castle of Sancti Petri.

As we approached, the boulders took on a more regular form and it became clear that they were modern additions to the beach. These were bunkers used during the Spanish Civil War and World War II to protect this coast and Cadiz from attack. Today, they’re crumbling monuments to a dark and dreadful part of Spain’s and Europe’s history. They are in pretty bad condition, battered by water, wind and sand. How long they will survive is anyone’s guess.

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Bunker, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Castle of Sancti Petri, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Castle of Sancti Petri, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Sancti Petri dates from a much earlier period, and was part of a system of 16th and 17th century coastal watchtowers constructed by order of Felipe II. The fortress was built as part of the defences of Cadiz, the intention being to protect Spanish shipping arriving back from the Americas, often laden with treasure, from Barbary Pirates and English privateers. The earliest part of the fort is from that time, but it was expanded in the 18th century.

Driving back into Cadiz we noticed a lot of restaurants with ocean views. It was Sunday and we decided we’d earned a long lunch. We ditched the car at the hotel and walked back along the seafront. We reached a strip of restaurants near the monumentally ugly Hotel Playa Victoria close to the football ground. The architecture in this area isn’t very attractive, but the seafood was excellent and came with ocean views.

Afterwards, we retired to the beach to sleep off our delicious lunch. It seemed like the perfect way to end our stay in Cadiz.

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Parque Natural Bahía de Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches, Cadiz, Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

 

Cadiz, the glory of the Coast of Light

My grandfather had a saying, used to explain the inexplicable. A dour, world-weary phrase that summed up the whole of human existence. It came without the need for further explanation, a full stop to any conversation. “Aye, there’s now’t as strange as folk”, was pronounced whilst listening to news of extraordinary events somewhere in the world, or local gossip, before going back to reading the Westmorland Gazette.

That phrase came forcefully to mind recently. I was extolling the joys of Cadiz to an old friend, telling her about how exhilarating the city was, how glorious the nearby beaches, how delicious the seafood washed down with a chilled glass of fino … I was met with a stoney silence, broken only when she said, “Oh, we went there a couple of years ago. We hated it.” Hated it! How can anyone hate Cadiz? People really are strange.

Beaches near Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Beaches near Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz may be more down to earth than its famous Andalusian rivals; its buildings may be more weathered, with peeling paint and crumbling plaster; and it may be a little rough around the edges, but that just adds to the phenomenal charm of this glorious  city. After all, this is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. It must be doing something right.

Cadiz sits on a narrow strip of land jutting out from Spain into the Atlantic Ocean. The ancient old town is shaped like a ball at the end of the peninsular, and crammed within its narrow confines are historic neighbourhoods, dozens of ancient churches, leafy plazas and atmospheric bars. The tightly packed streets are a little claustrophobic, emerging out of them into the brilliant sunlight of the ocean front is almost shocking.

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Streets of Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

La Caleta, the city beach, is wedged between old forts and offers sweeping panoramas over the ocean. Small fishing boats picturesquely bob up and down on the waves. This area has gained the nickname of Little Havana, the city’s seafront doing a passable impersonation of Havana’s Malecón – Havana’s crenelated fortifications are modelled on Cadiz. Like its more famous counterpart, it’s definitely the place to be at sunset.

Cadiz’s relationship with the sea dates back millennia, it’s a suitably excitement-packed history. The city was founded in 1100 BC by Phoenician traders. Centuries later it was captured by the Carthaginians, and Spain became the main European stronghold for Carthage’s resistance to the Roman Empire. It was from Spain that Hannibal launched an offensive against Rome involving his legendary crossing of the Alps on elephants.

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

After the final defeat of Carthage the city became Roman, whose empire in turn collapsed. Cadiz was controlled by different civilisations until the arrival of the Moors in 711, after which it was renamed Jazirat Qadis. For the next 551 years it remained a vital port and stronghold for Moorish rule. It fell to Alfonso X of Castile during the Reconquista in 1262, and has been Spanish ever since.

The city boomed after the discovery of the Americas in 1492, becoming the base for Spain’s treasure fleets. Gold and silver, flowing across the Atlantic, made Cadiz rich. It also made it a target for anyone who wanted to get their hands on Spanish gold. Chief amongst whom were the ‘privateers’ working for Elizabeth I of England. Sir Francis Drake attacked the port in 1587. Lord Essex launched a more destructive attack in 1596, burning the city, including the 13th century cathedral.

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Sunset from La Caleta, Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz briefly became the capital of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, when Spain was occupied by the French. The city bore witness to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805, which included the destruction of a Spanish fleet. This loss, and Napoleon’s occupation, hastened the collapse of Spain’s empire, without which Cadiz slid into a long period of decline from which it has never fully recovered.

Today this extraordinarily rich history is writ large across the city. The best way of discovering it is to wander aimlessly and let it find you. In between, stop off at the many tapas places on pretty plazas, have a sherry (or two) in atmospheric bars, and eat fried fish on La Caleta watching the sun set while imagining the sights this city has seen over the centuries. What’s not to love about that?