A day of high culture – and Gatwick

It’s funny how random acts of kindness often beget others. I took in a package for Maria our neighbour opposite. It was quite heavy so I carried it over the road into her hall. As we were talking I mentioned I was going to Spain and ending up in Madrid and she said she would contact her friend Jose who worked at the Reina Sofia certainly on my visit list. So this morning I walked through the El Retiro Gardens and eventually made it – sorry Jose a few minutes late – to the fabulous Nouvel Building which didn’t exist when we last visited, I think there was scaffolding and cranes.

We chat over a coffee – Jose doing that thing I’ve seen lots of Spanish people do – get a regular coffee and a glass with some ice cubes and then pour the coffee into the glass of ice – cafe con hielo. I guess it’s a DIY iced coffee. We got on very well – he works in the exhibitions department arranging the changing calendar of temporary exhibitions. I think I’d quite enjoy the challenge of deciding who to feature and then finding willing sources to lend works for the exhibition – forensics and persuasion in equal measure. Jose has kindly arranged a free ticket for me and provided me with a guide to one of the two exhibitions in the building Eusebio Sempere where we went first and then Jose went off to do his day’s work. He was most generous with his time and I hope to repay it in London on his next visit. On our way I couldn’t help but admire the magnificent library created as part of the extension.

I had noted in Cuenca on Sunday that one of Sempere’s works was missing from the museum on loan to the Reina Sofia so I did get to see it after all. Sempere is an interesting artist with a love of precise lines, geometrical forms but also innovated with illuminated cutouts and computer generated images. Then he made massive mobiles in chromed steel where the juxtaposition of two or three planes mean that the image ‘moves’ as the viewer walks past the object. Happy bunny – small scale intricate drawing, experimentation and massive sculptures with powerful effects. Equally happy bunny downstairs at the Russian Dada exhibition – who knew? I’ve just read A Gentleman in Moscow on this trip so there were lots of resonances in the works of anti-art produced by the Dadaists of Moscow and St Petersburg. There was a hilarious first film from Eisenstein and lots of other highly graphical works attempting to change the nature of art at the same time that Russia tried to change the nature of government. Eye-opening stuff that exposed another huge level of my ignorance.

While in the Reina Sofia I couldn’t not go to see Picasso’s Guernica again and I also enjoyed a lot of other works from the time of the Spanish Civil War. In another room was a Richard Serra installation called Equal Parallel – Guernica Bengazi inspired by the US bombing of Libya. It’s a room filled with cleverly spaced blocks of rust coloured Corten steel and as you weave your way between them you have time to think above motive, action and consequences – poignant after visiting Hiroshima earlier this year. Art and politics are hard to separate aren’t they?

With imminent eye glaze it was time for a museum break and a trip to the Atocha station which when Dee and I were last in Madrid together had just had its equivalent of the Kew Gardens temperate house installed and I was interested to see how it had gone. This is a sub-tropical forest inside a railway station approach. Some of the trees we saw just planted – already quite sizeable – are now trying to escape through the roof. It’s a green oasis to walk through on your commute into the city but inevitably time, millions of passengers, fag ends and gum have taken their toll. Can we ban chewing in public as well as smoking? Or at least better disposal?

I fancied a quick beer but there was a football team occupying most of the nearby traditional café and I’m afraid I don’t do Burger King or Macdonald’s, I did find a suitable bar a short distance away and sat and looked at a booklet about Open Madrid I’d been handed by a tourist office lady. This is about places not normally visitable like the Open Gardens and Open Offices in London and I now presume other cities. Might have to come back – it sounds fun. However the booklet also informed me that at the Teatro Pavan this evening was a performance of Yerma to mark 80 years since Lorca’s death. I know the play from reading it, the Juliet Stevenson performance in the Cottesloe in the 1980s and of course the recent Billie Piper vehicle although I’m not sure many of Lorca’s actual words were in that version exciting though it was. So I got the phone out, booked one of the last four tickets – is there a bot that tells you that whatever you’re after there’s only so much or so many left? I find it annoying on hotel sites, slightly less so here – it might even be true.

My trusty sandals have become a bit squelchy and are emitting rude sounds as I walk so I take a cab back to the hotel for a change of feet – I wish! Birkenstocks applied, I pop round to a local bar for a bite, They have, they tell me, an excellent ceviche with cod, sea bass and prawns so I am persuaded and have a beer and then a crisp young Rueda when the food arrives. Then it’s back through the Retiro Gardens to the Prado which is such a fabulous museum that I can’t be here and not enter. I decide against the special exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto and head for the main galleries.

There are brilliant Bosch and Bruegel rooms but I decide to restrict myself to El Greco – they have lots more here than in Toledo and some of even better quality, Velazquez and Goya. What I like about El Greco’s big set pieces is that each portrait in the crowd is of someone you’ve just seen or might meet in a bar. Christ carrying the cross with tears welling up is amazing. Moving on seeing Las Meninas again made me think of Laura Cumming’s excellent book The Vanishing Man which features a whodunnit art world adventure tracing a missing Velazquez – must read it again. He again pushed painting forward in many ways with some of the brushwork almost akin to Van Gogh. The Prado has lots of Velazquez but I recall being told on an Art Fund visit to Apsley House that they have even more as they were given as tribute to Wellington for ridding Spain of the French. I save Goya till last and end up with the two majas and then the awful, awesome 3rd of May which does actually make me cry.

Time now to leave and get those feet moving across the city to the theatre which is not marked on my map but is in Calle Embajadores which leads off from the Plaza Mayor. Appropriately I pass a statue of Lorca on the way – a good omen?

It’s quite a schlepp and my dreams of a pre-performance drink have to be passed up. They scan my ticket on my phone and send me past a main auditorium to a tiny space that was exactly like the old Bush theatre in the early 70s. Four rows of folding chairs in rows of 20 and mind the props as you cross the stage to your seat. No numbered seating meant I should have got there earlier but with a bit of craning and sliding I managed to see most of it. Oh and there was only one empty seat. It was a mixed version with modern dress, a refusing-to-turn-blue pregnancy test taken on the centre stage WC to emphasise Yerma’s longing for a child and some updating of the language. It was well acted with a good ensemble cast and a brilliant Yerma who is of course virtually on stage throughout. This actress is Alba José who looked vaguely familiar and when I got home I realised that she had been in the excellent Spanish TV series shown on BBC 4 last year I know who you are. A very happy couple of hours to round off a day of culture. So I take a post-performance glass of wine and haltingly discuss my impressions with a couple whose English is on a par with my Spanish but we have another round and all enjoyed the play and a chance to chat about it.

On my way back through Sol, there was a demonstration – well it’s Madrid, there will be won’t there? This one was calling for no indemnity for the perpetrators of Franco’s crimes and compensation for the victims. The dictator may have been gone for 40 years but what with plans to move his remains from his dreadful mausoleum and retribution for those who suffered he’s certainly not forgotten. Art and politics, people and politics and still several people I spoke to don’t (or can’t) believe Brexit will happen. I stop for some tapas – prawns in garlic and albondigas meatballs in a tomato sauce on this occasion in a great bar-restaurant called the Cathedral.

Another pit stop for a café y copa well it is my last night in Spain and back to the hotel – so different from my others but fun with its black and white décor and strange wood grain woven carpet in the corridors, Why? Actual wood strips in the rooms.

I spend Friday morning getting a few last minute items around the Salamanca area which was as I said in an earlier piece was new to me and very impressive. Plenty of places to eat and drink well but also little food shops, fruit and veg stalls and lots of antique shops – if I was driving home I might be in trouble. Check out is at noon and flight check in at four so I decide to drive straight on down Calle Alcala in the car. It goes on for ever and ends up in the town of Alcala de Henares of which I made a circuit but failed to find a parking spot. It’s an important musical and university town and has some impressive buildings housing those pursuits. Looked definitely worthy of another visit – maybe by train next time I’m in Madrid (if).

I took a circuitous country route back and found myself in Paracuellos de Jarama I’d read about this place in books on the Spanish Civil War as it was the location for many of the early mass shootings of the war with estimates of between 2000 and 10,000 massacred by Fascist forces. It does have a staggering view across the airport and away to the city of Madrid. Like so many of the places I passed through there are huge swathes of new build dormitory towns to serve the capital. But it still had a pleasant little square with a tall tower and a few bars. Down a zigzag route and into Barajas town where I had a couple of false starts including going into the taxis’ stacking compound before finding the tiny entrance to the rental car return zone. All sorted in good time, checked in by machine again – although a person did print the baggage tag – and then to the lounge to enjoy light refreshments and watch the aircraft manoeuvre. I stayed in the comfort of the lounge too long and had my hand luggage removed at the aircraft steps. Had put iPad in camera bag so able to blog during the flight. As we went for take off I snapped the village where I’d been two hours earlier – you can just make out the tower I think – the brick one not the airport Control Tower. Machines away now as on descent.

Swift flight, straight to an empty passport reader and only ten minutes to wait for my two bags followed by a struggle to meet with my Data Cars driver but eventually home after a very fine two weeks in the sun and it’s shining here although less warmly as I set off for the West Herts Sports Club for a beer with friends before Watford v Manchester United at 17:30.

Much ado – mucho andando

So my last day in Cuenca was meant to be about nothing – a quiet one and then I got a small two hour job to do – my fault I did say I’d pick up emails if urgent. So the morning passed and it wasn’t quite hot enough to go to the pool so given the verbiage was flowing I knocked out a short story for a collection I’ve planned alongside “the novel”. I’d written off the new town of Cuenca down the hill after driving through a few times but thought while I’m here I’d better walk down through the old town and see how it all pans out. It took about half an hour – all down – from the parador to the main shopping/drinking street. I had dinner planned so didn’t want much lunch so a beer and the freeby olives, nuts and crisps sufficed at a couple of bars and it was after four by now. The lower town does not have much to recommend it I’m afraid except for an enthusiastic balcony display commemorating Cuenca’s sunflowers and a little later the lovely strains from the practice rooms of the music academy with its lively (again) Corten steel sculpture.

The northern river Jucar had a bit more water than the Huecar on the parador side and there was a pleasant park and another incredibly modern church the cross of which probably doubles as a cellphone mast, impressive university buildings and a likely looking theatre.

Do I walk back up or get a cab? Seems daft to not walk but it does prove quite steep and there’s more to come later. However the legs make it up beside the Huecar with its little weirs gurgling encouragement to the ancient limbs and I do get a different angle on the hanging houses and the bridge which on my way down I’d heard someone refusing to cross – I guess if you have a height phobia it would be very scary.

Back at the parador I shower and prepare for dinner at Cuenca’s one Michelin starred restaurant Raff San Pedro. Of course it’s up in the old town so the bones creak a bit but the menu makes pain soon forgotten. I explain that with old age I really only need a small amount so the patron suggests the Menu Gastro which has three small starters, a main fish or meat and ice cream. I go for that – and forgive me some have accused earlier blogs of being too full of food but this has to be told. First comes a small golf ball of ajo arriero cod and garlic mixed with potato and with a truffled exterior. Delicate notes of truffle and garlic very well balanced. Next is a wine glass of foamed yogurt with migas the local croutons and jellied extract of artichoke. The third is a wonderfully smooth salmorejo gazpacho’s thicker sister with cucumber and quail’s egg. The main was an old favourite carilleras pig’s cheeks where the meat is so tender because of lying against that great expanse of bone. Accompanied by a local Tempranillo my last day in Cuenca was a huge success and Spain beat Croatia 6-0 so there was happiness in the plaza as I wended my way back down to the parador.

Breakfast, pack and on to Madrid with an easy drive until the last section where the SatNav could not put me outside my hotel despite telling me I’d reached my destination. I had to go into a giant parking garage under Plaza de Independencia and find the hotel on foot with Google maps and then go and retrieve the car and park it in the hotel’s garage. It’s a modern boutique number quite unlike the rest of my trip but very pleasant and in Salamanca an area of the city I didn’t know much before. I do now. It’s very posh (of course) with lots of international and local specialist clothes, shoe and jewellery shops. What I did find was a Galician taberna for lunch which had steamed clams fresh in from A Coruna this morning – and they and the crisp Rias Baixas wine reminded me of our trip two years ago along the north and west coast starting in San Sebastian and ending up in Baiona. Fortified I wandered, keeping to the shady side of the street as it reached 36 degrees today – pleasing the locals as it had been over 40. I walked through areas unfamiliar and familiar, finding another local market on the way and ending up on the far west of the city by the Royal Palace. I sat in front of the Opera thinking one day it would be good to come here during the season and catch a performance. Likewise the Liceu in Barcelona.

I had of course to go through Sol the very heart of Madrid and our favourite plaza Santa Ana before heading through the Retiro Gardens and back to the hotel on Alcala. My feet said enough and there’s a Mexican-Spanish fusion group playing live on the roof terrace tonight so it would be rude not to attend. Besides as I entered my room after an urgent beer in the bar I found this. Salud!

I’ve never been into to the FitBit step thing but today I did think it would be nice to know just how many steps – all as they say andando a pie.

Lunes cerrado – fiesta abierta

As experienced in Toledo – Mondays things are closed – so I decided to travel out into the mountains of Cuenca (La Serrania de Cuenca National Park) and visit a place mentioned in the tourist footage but which we couldn’t use – the enchanted city – much too metaphorical for beginners in English. Fortunately it isn’t closed on Mondays. It’s a bit twee as a name but they also apply this epithet to the old town in Cuenca – La Ciudad Encantada. I suppose this one could have dumbed down and become Rock City because it is an area of the national park in which there are amazing rock formations in the limestone and sandstone topology that have evolved through water and wind erosion. There’s a three kilometre trail, very clearly marked, that takes you past these weird forms which have been categorised on a series of informative plaques in Spanish and English as The Dog, The Bears, the Face, The Roman Bridge, The Lovers of Teruel etc. My favourite was the Elephant and the Crocodile who really do seem to be having a fight.

The first stack you come to

Lover of Teruel x 2

Elephant (right) with trunk in crocodile’s mouth

As I entered a large guided tour was setting off so despite the marked route heading right, I decided to do it in reverse – feasible as it was circular. This proved a much more peaceful alternative as I discovered when I met the group half way. As I exited several more groups were starting out so I think I chose my moment well. The plaques apart from conveying the popular names for the rocks also provided useful notes on the flora and fauna including the fact that holly is an endangered species in Spain – I’ll bring some cuttings next time. After a while I crested a small ridge to confront The Sea of Stone – a limestone pavement that would have had my erstwhile head of geography and geology expert (Dee for those unfamiliar with her past) jumping with joy. I’ve seldom known anyone so excited by memories of a school field trip to the pavement above Malham Cove in Yorkshire! It is quite a sight and this one was impressive too. My visit included my first exposure to a little light rain on this trip – there were plenty of overhangs in the rocks when it got heavier for a minute or two but it didn’t really come to anything until a bit later on in the day.

The sea of stone
Cathedral arch

After a pleasant stroll through an interesting area I decide to explore the mountains a little more and make a semi-circular return to Cuenca. This is real mountain scenery with hairpin bends, low gear sections and spectacular views. It’s the kind of terrain where you often see this sign and think – Oh yeah.

Well on this stretch there had been a rock fall within the last couple of days given the freshness of the markings on the road. There were still yellow road works signs for the guys clearing the rocks off the road.

I drove through the gorge of the river Jucar passing literally gorgeous scenery (sorry) and an extensive reservoir.

Finally after a section marked as ‘Mountain road – no markings’ – great fun and only one vehicle to negotiate in 20 km – the road emerged in the village of Cañete which had some staggering Moorish walls, a market and a bar/restaurant that looked good for lunch. I sat with a beer and some local very strong manchego cheese and homemade chorizo when the heavens opened and the town came rushing in.

It was clear that I was occupying a difficult spot for la padrona to accommodate everyone so I moved to great thanks from the incoming group. As you do, I became involved in conversation thereafter and enquired as to what their tee shirts signified. The women were wearing tops with the slogan ‘La peña de pantocha’. I knew that peña meant an association, society or interest group but I had to enquire what the word pantocha meant – should have learnt more slang in my youth. The ladies burst into laughter and indicated that it was a part of the feminine anatomy where as they put it ‘Entran las pollas, salen los niños’. My conclusion that in English they’d be called the C*** Club had them in complete hysterics with gleeful delight in the matched alliteration. The menfolk were all bearing tee shirts with the legend WILLYS with which I was familiar from a souvenir/craft shop in Palamos a while ago where as a winter gift they had a series of beautifully knitted ‘willy warmers’ ranging from thimble size to truncheon – you decide which to take home. I tried to explain that grammatically their slogans were wrong in that they should either be WILLY’S if they were celebrating one particular member or WILLIES if they were all involved. I spared them the Wilis in Giselle. We were deep into dangerous territory here as I couldn’t accept the free-flowing booze with my car parked opposite under the walls. It transpired that while the fiesta always had a religious element, a few years ago some of them had decided to sex it up a bit with some gender related fun and games so they had a number of contests between the sexes. I hate to think how the evening would have finished – it was quite rowdy when I left at 4.30. But my new friends did pose for a photo as I left. Spike in June babies in Cañete?

The drive back to Cuenca was less spectacular and after frequent checks on progress at the Oval – most satisfactory – I stayed at the parador for dinner and was introduced to a speciality of the area morteruelo which is a paté served warm made from hare, rabbit, partridge and a variety of spices which had a rillette-type texture and was very tasty. I followed it with another local speciality oxtail in red wine sauce and tried a wine denomination I’d never encountered before Uclès. A most acceptable tempranillo.

Adelante – Belmonte y Cuenca

After a leisurely breakfast and checkout, I head off to the east towards Belmonte where I plan to stay the night as the parador deal doesn’t work on Saturdays and Belmonte has a good looking hotel. As I bowl along I’m caught by a sign to Campo de Criptana – another amazing hill of windmills where Dee and I had also gone at the New Year some while back. When the Don calls … So I am soon, after a coffee and churro in town – yes I know it’s supposed to be chocolate y churros – parking at the top of the hill and walking down to the fabulous array of molinos. Being right on the edge of town makes it quite a different experience from Consuegra. They are fine structures and well maintained – glad I followed the call.

Back now on to the N420 that crosses the east centre of Spain from Cordoba to Tarragona, Because of the extensive network of motorways (autovia non-toll as opposed to the autopista where you do have to pay) the road is empty and a delightful drive. Behind me the centre of Castilla La Mancha had been as flat as a pancake. Now as I enter the province of Cuenca it starts to ruffle up around the edges like an omelette undulating in the pan. After several miles it’s more like a soufflé or a meringue with some serious peaks arriving. I reach Belmonte and, my goodness, it’s got a castle rather splendid with a six point star shape and some windmills behind the town. These haven’t been painted glistening white and probably are nearer to historical accuracy. There are also impressive medieval walls around the town.

The hotel is welcoming and has rooms named after famous folk so I am placed in Pedro 1 who I discovered was the last king of Castille-La-Mancha and was called both the Cruel and the Just – well there is the old saying about being kind. The hotel occupies a great building, is a popular meeting place for the town and serves a good local craft beer. It also had a clothes horse of the kind I haven’t seen for years. Had to hang clothes on that.

What I hadn’t checked was that Belmonte was celebrating its fiesta patronal which involved a lots of singing, dancing and drinking on Saturday and on Sunday a procession for the Virgin of Grace. So I watched England beaten by Spain to the delight of the locals – I had to admit Spain were the better team although ‘we was robbed’ at the end. I then joined the revellers at the local brass band’s recital and then at a series of sets by a band I can only describe as Latino heavy rock. They were fun, people dressed up and danced but they did go on until 04:30.

I had retired by then but not to much sleep! On the way east the weather had changed and once the music stopped I was woken by thunder. It rumbled around but produced no rain which is good as two days ago in a town near Toledo I saw on the news cars being swept down the street in flash floods. It was called Cebolla = Onion Town.

I decided to make straight for Cuenca knowing I’d be too early to check in but did manage to park and store my cases before setting off to explore the town. On the way I was surprised to drive through field after field of sunflowers. Google later helpfully informed me that round about a third of all Spain’s sunflowers grow in the province. But oh what would Vincent say? In 1997 Dee and I drove her mum through south west France where she loved the field after field of shoulder high sunflowers. In Cuenca they are still very striking bout only about two feet (less than a metre) high. Just not the same but much more efficient I’m sure.

I’ve bored some people already with the story of why I wanted to come to Cuenca. About 25 years ago I made an English language teaching video about two students on exchange between Brighton and Cuenca which seem to both be favourite places in the ELT universe. Thing is we shot several scenes purporting to be in Cuenca without me ever going there. It was all done by the wonders of blue screen (not green in those days) and Ultimatte a clever keying device that allowed library footage from the Tourist Office in Cuenca to play behind action in the studio. So having seen only the bits they wanted me to see I was intrigued to visit the place myself. It’s defined by a massive gorge – not a high frequency occurrence word of much value to learners, but it did have lots of steps which helped with counting – well beyond the required 100!

It didn’t disappoint – the gorge reminded me of Ronda which also has a parador perched on its edge (the converted convent on the left is Cuenca’s) but there was a rather flimsy-looking iron and wood bridge to cross into the old city. Most of the tourist footage was of this bit rather than the undistinguished modern city far below. There are some famous medieval hanging houses which I’d seen on film but are stunning to the eye and by a miracle are now the Museum of Modern Spanish Abstract Art.

It has some very impressive examples: Chillida, Tapies, Miro among them and some fine works by artists I didn’t know. Being inside the building was great too as some of the original features remain and the view from the balconies is vertiginous.

Moving on, the Plaza Mayor and Catedral were familiar from the footage although the signage and slogans are a bit more modern, Right at the top the castle had featured with a scene in front of it which had proved a vehicle for the past tense. For me it proved the turning point for me to stop exploring – all up so far – and seek some lunch.

I might not have fetched up where I did in a previous visit (!) but found a bar in the main square near the cathedral with some local craft beer I thought I’d try – the bottle came and it was 7%, serious beer, but as so often with high alcohol content too sweet for my tooth so I stuck at the one there and had a more refreshing Alhambra on the way back to check in.

Manzanares – exploring the ologies

This is one of the paradors I haven’t stayed at before and on arrival I know why. It’s address is Km 175 A4 and it really is right beside the very noisy motorway from Madrid to Cordoba and beyond. The double glazing’s good behind the typical galleried facade so in the rooms it’s fine but by the excellent pool there’s a hum of traffic all the time.

However this wasn’t going to be a stay in the hotel all day stay so no real problem. On arrival after my Don Quixote day I walked the twenty minutes into the centre. To be fair it’s a fairly dull town with a few good buildings – theatre very deco, church one very modern and some very ancient as well as a good plaza.

However this part of the trip was for swimming (tick), writing (tick) chilling (semi-tick) and exploring the local ecology, archeology and oenology (two and a half ticks).

Not far away are the Tablas de Daimiel a national park wetlands area on the Guadiana River. It had a good visitor centre with lots of dioramas of flora and fauna at different times of the year and some well maintained footpaths and being around lagoons and marshes not too much up except to an observatory from which I was able to spot very little. Coots and heron don’t really count but there were some small birds whizzing about that I could’n’t identify. A very pleasant circular walk of three kilometres in the morning before it got too hot.

My next stop was the provincial capital Ciudad Real again new to me. It had a couple of really nice squares, some deco buildings, or as they call it here modernisme, and felt quite buzzy. There were some great posting boxes too. It provided a good lunch stop in the shade as the temperature reached 41 Celsius.

Friday’s outing was to the Motilla del Azuer a Bronze Age settlement with the Iberian peninsula’s deepest well or so I’d read in Wikipedia or Tripadvisor. It seemed quite close by. Once again I decide to make my archaeology trip in the morning before it hots up. The SatNav directed me after 5 km onto a dirt road. Now I’m quite familiar with the fact that in large parts of the country roads don’t have tarmac but are perfectly serviceable. This was not really the best I’ve come across and when I found myself behind two ghost tractors it was second gear for ages and then a complete stop to snap a group of melon pickers. I couldn’t help thinking about our picking problems in agriculture back home as this gang of Moroccans – I did ask if they’d mind – made a pick, pass and stack line onto a trailer.

On then to the Motilla to find it closed and with a notice saying you could only visit by appointment in guided tours – if only I’d checked their website first. There are some good photos, one of which I’ve borrowed, but I had to make do with this one as the next available tour is on 15 September when I’ll be at Vicarage Road for Watford v Manchester United – full of confidence. So a half tick for that one but a fun, slightly scary journey into the vast interior. The Motilla is exactly in the middle of nowhere, an accord I’d erroneously bestowed on Tembleque which is much closer to somewhere.

I am familiar with the product of Valdepenas – most excellent wines and as luck would have it I chose to visit the city during the Fiesta del Vendemmia y Vino (harvest and wine). Oenology – tick. The main square was heaving with extra cafe counters, a band was doing its sound check and a red London bus was an attractive tapas outlet. The great thing was that the atmosphere was suffused with the aroma of grilled sardines and as I ordered a beer I was presented with a whole sardine and a piece of bread as my freebie. So lunch consisted of a stroll round the square: pork skewers at one, chicken wings, tortilla and that’s enough beer as I have to drive. But before all that I’d been to the Cultural Centre that had a fine art and sculpture exhibition. Another spectacle that caught my attention was the excellent stencilled iron street names and the umbrellas that hung over the main shopping streets. These are a unique feature of the city – 4000 of them are strung up in early summer to alleviate the heat, provide shade for shoppers and act as a tourist attraction. I loved them with their Spanish flag reds and yellows and colours of provincial and local emblems. My final visit had to be to the big statue of the Don at the end of the main street. It’s a large bronze and there was its maquette in the exhibition I went to earlier.

I came back to Manzanares via La Solana which is on the Ruta de Don Quijote and I wondered how he would have coped with these modern contraptions.

The town has a fine plaza and church, a ducal palace now the town hall, a cinema themed bar and is famous for growing saffron without which no paella would be complete.

Chasin’ the Don

With apologies to Mr John Coltrane but it does rather describe a day of unexpected travel from Toledo to Manzanares – my next parador again on their excellent 3 nights for 2 deal. Swim, breakfast, checkout – trunks (swimming, this is not the grand tour) on the rear window shelf to dry – I set off planning a detour or two so as to admire some new countryside and visit a couple of former locations. I find out how to teach the Citroen’s Satnav that I prefer N and side roads to motorways and set off for Tembleque which I must have read about somewhere. This is a one horse town – well the Don is Quixote – which claims to be the exact geographical centre of the Iberian peninsula. It’s certainly in the middle of nowhere. But when I get there I get another self-catering anxiety as it’s market day. I do buy some juicy nectarines and big red plums later consumed with delight. Tembleque has an amazing Plaza Mayor for a town of 2500 people.

It also has an octagonal library – complete with youngster on the net – and a little way away a famous 18th century casa de postas which from its original use as a place for message carriers to stay has been a barracks, a hostel and is noted as a building of interest. But as you can see it’s all a facade.

Made me think again about spending money restoring old things, funding prestigious projects that no one really needs and using scarce resources on real need and halting the slide into poverty of so many. It’s a hard one as heritage is important. How come Spain already has a brilliant high speed train network AVE that connects all the major cities at more than 300 Kph? Crossrail, HS2 really? Are the amazing infrastructure projects what took Spain into the dodgy PIGS group a few years back?

I had a long chat with a guy in the tourist office in Tembleque with a few Brexit references which prompted the above. I guess there are fat cats in Spain too. In fact we know they do as even the royal family is embroiled in tax evasion scandals. However this grand palace built by a rich merchant in the has failed to attract money – laundered or otherwise – to restore it to it’s 1753 splendour. The money for its construction was made in the Americas, something a lots of Spaniards did at this time.

The office was in a small museum of rural life which was fun to see and he also handed me proudly a map of the Ruta de Don Quixote in which Tembleque features as did my next port of call Consuegra. This is the best preserved set of old style windmills that strut across the hillside either side of the castle, The poor Don would think he was completely outnumbered up here. Dee and I came here a few years ago at the end of December after spending Christmas with her sister at their apartment in Murcia. The sky was clear and blue but a bit cooler than today’s 38 degrees C.

It’s enough to make a nag like Dulcinea sweat going up all those hills and forgetting that you can drive to the top! Since we were there one of the mills has been restored to function on a few days a week actually grinding grains to make flour – but not today. We had visited here from the parador at Almagro a bit to the south so I thought a nostalgic trip there was in order.

We had seen its galleried plaza mayor with Christmas lights and a tree. It brought back very happy memories but the square where we had lunched and shopped was exhibiting end of seasonitis today – it was midweek and school’s just gone back. In one restaurant the chef had presented us with a book about the aubergine (eggplant, berenjena) for which the town is famous.

So I had to have one for lunch. It was delicious and Almagro remains an attractive town and I couldn’t help thinking that Dee should have been with me as I passed this bar.

The Almagro parador does have a pool but this trip is about new discoveries so it’s on to Manzanares. Driving on country roads I was struck by the vastness of the country and especially the plains of Castilla La Mancha.


Also to note as I travelled was that while they may not have cash for old landmarks, they certainly do for new olive groves, vineyards and orchards. Like the ones below these have obviously been planted in the last couple of years in the expectation of better prices from the big market of the UK when higher tariffs will apply post-Brexit. There may be other reasons but planting a thousand peach trees, vines or olives doesn’t come cheap and the evidence of investment is everywhere. Just maybe Spain is recovering a bit quicker than many thought, Time will tell.

Toodle-oo Toledo-oo

As an occasional crossworder I couldn’t resist the anagram – apologies. Not so good on the ear unless you do oo, oo and oh, oh. Hey on with the the story. After the excitement of travel, results of cricket and football on Sunday I ate on the parador’s elegant restaurant terrace looking across at the city. The building itself is based around a typical Toledo cigarral the large hilltop houses the rich built for themselves overlooking the city.

On Monday morning I drove in to town, found a good parking spot – 2 euros for four hours – and went to explore. Now in most of Spain Monday means closed so the El Greco Museum would have to wait. However the city guide app informed add me that his masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz could be seen in the San Tome church so that’s where I headed.

From the other side of the river Toledo centre looks like it will be pretty flat once you’ve got there. That is an illusion of the cruellest order as I was immediately confronted with steep streets and then steps to achieve the church. A modest 2.80 euros gained entry and it was worth it although crowded with multi-lingual tour guides explaining it’s subtleties.

It is a stunningly large work and has a heavenly half and a mortal half in which brilliant portraits of the great and the good of Toledo at the time surround the interment scene, including the artist himself. Along with the Disrobing of Christ in the cathedral also open on Mondays but a steeper 10 euros, these two were some of his earliest paintings and were brilliant business cards for his work as a portraitist to the nobles of the city.

From San Tome to the high gothic Game of Thrones-worthy cathedral was not too bad but it was another steep schlepp up to the Alcazar, that huge fortress at the eastern end of the city. Worth it though as each facade is different, the views down to the Tajo are excellent and there are bars nearby.

I concluded that unlike many cities it has no real centre but a number of quite small areas where shops and restaurants congregate. It’s quite hard to get a grip of which is probably why there were so many raised umbrellas escorting tour groups. Maybe I should have done the city tour bus. Beer and tapas downed I walked blissfully down to retrieve the car and go back to the parador for a swim and a read.

I got a cab back into town and was deposited in Plaza Zocodover the central meeting point near the Alcazar. It’s Monday and most restaurants are closed except the two that sadly dominate the square MacDonald’s and Burger King – oh Spain I weep for you.

They of course were open but I persevered and found a little local bar where I thought I’d take a tapa before finding a restaurant. There was a quarter of a tortilla left and a big dish of wild mushrooms after which I made a joke that actually worked in Spanish along the lines of ‘I asked for a snack and got a meal’. Great hilarity and a glass of wine on the house as we watched the US Open tennis on the TV – a change from the very popular bullfight channel that plays in most bars – and had a bit of a conversation about the effects of Brexit – hard to avoid when you say you come from the UK. In one bar someone did actually say ‘If you don’t like us why are you here?’ My remain vote sort of placated him but there’s a degree of rancour. A copa in another bar and a walk back, up of course, to Zocodover to find a cab and complete Toledo Day 2.

On Tuesday I returned to my same parking spot and walked up to the El Greco Museum which was well worth the wait. I have even more respect for him now as a painter after perhaps glibly dismissing the elongated blue and purple figures I knew. His technique and brushwork up close are fantastic for the time and the various videos playing around the house are very informative. The museum is in a reconstruction of a house like the one El Greco might have lived in and is near the area where he is know to have lived. His business prospered and he had a studio with assistants who would knock out small scale copies with the price adjusted to how much actual painting the maestro had done himself. His last house had 22 rooms so he did OK as an entrepreneur as well as a painter. Oh and he sold prints from engravings too.

Outside the museum was a Corten steel sculpture of the apostles that El Greco was so famous for. As a Richard Serra fan I was quite taken by this work by Paco Rojas and by the steel letters dotted around the museum itself. There was also a well placed restaurant with a 12 euro menu so why not? On the menu were carcamusas which I’d never encountered despite extensive travels in Spain. It’s a dish of lean pork fillet with tomatoes, garlic, pimiento and wine, I think, anyway it was good. Next was a trip to another synagogue, mosque cum church in this eminently three faith city: San Juan de Los Reyes which had a great cloister, fabulous ceilings and bizarre stone work.

Touristed out I found the car, drove back to the parador and swam lots in the warm evening air. Also read a bit. Back to Zocodover for the evening and fund the bar in the city. Craft beer – one most appropriate given my background – and a queue to eat that would take a while. So passing the blandishments of the chains I found the nicer square – Plaza del Barrio del Rey – where there were some local bars – again just tapas as I’d had a menu for lunch.

It was fine but I felt I’d never really got to grips with Toledo, It’s this odd mix of reverance for the three religions history and an attempt to become a tourist destination. The parador and its inviting skinny dipping pool was great, the city did not add itself to my must rush back list.

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