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.

Vichy Catalan

3 Away on the windThe first four months of this year have been rather busy so after fulfilling Dee’s last wishes on her birthday by letting her fly free from the Ivinghoe Beacon, I thought it was time for me to fly away too for a while and catch up with me and my thoughts. Friends and family have been wonderfully supportive and made sure I didn’t sit doing a bottle of scotch every night or something equally daft and making sure that I had plenty of stimulating company, excursions and diversions. So I decided to take off for three weeks in May and where better to go than Spain which has meant so much to us both over the last twenty plus years. So here we go on a visit on my own to some of the places we had enjoyed together and see how it all stacks up.

Well the planning is all rubbish for a start:

  • DataCars persuade me to leave home at 10:30 for a 14:45 flight despite my assertion that 11:30 would be good, So an early last water of the plants that kind people will keep alive while I’m away and off we go. Not even the slightest pause at the Blackwall Tunnel so we get to Stansted at 11:20 and I’m checked in and through security in double quick time with two hours before they even announce the gate! One of the perks Dee had on her bank account was an airport lounge pass which we had made good use of in the past. I decided to continue the pass from a Groupon half price deal. Was I glad of it today! In a quiet room with a view of aircraft if that’s your thing I had coffee and croissants, read the paper and started to write this. Then it was time for lunch and a glass of wine and then off to the gate feeling calm and relaxed not having had to spend my time being screamed at to buy duty free goods – to get to the lounge and the gates Stansted has copied IKEA so you have to walk past all those designer outlets, and Boots and Smiths, before you can reach your destination.
  • The best car hire deal was direct with Budget who claimed their office was on Girona airport. It’s not. And they close at 18:00. My flight arrived at 17:45, slightly early, but after baggage reclaim, determining the location of Budget and walking the half a k to get there, the office was closed. However the lady in charge had not quite escaped so a young lady with a bicycle in a big black case and I were allowed to collect our pre-booked cars BUT we had to pay €60 extra for “out of hours’ collection” which the boss lady was most apologetic about and gave us detailed receipts and instructions on how to reclaim it. It’s clearly a scam she doesn’t approve of. She also “upgraded” me to a smart red Audi which is quite nippy and fun to drive.
  • My first hotel Balneari Vichy Catalan was carefully selected just 20 minutes from Girona Airport and at the source of what had always been our favourite mineral water Vichy Catalan. You can really taste those minerals doing you good – just don’t put it in whisky.IMG_2217

I don’t know how good your Catalan is but this banner  mocking my arrival says Festival the last Saturday in April. When do I arrive? The first of May. It also features the person who gives the place its name. Mala vella is an evil old woman who reportedly haunted the castle in medieval times. I checked in to the hotel and set off to find a bar with a UK TV feed so I could watch Watford v Liverpool. Everywhere was closed in fiesta recuperation mode so I came back to the hotel to find that there was a  Spanish channel showing it so I could watch us just miss out on at least a point thanks to a wonder goal from Emre Can, a great save from a Capoue shot and the crossbar from Prödl. The Spanish commentators found Vicarage Road very difficult to pronounce. This led to me being by a long way the last person in the restaurant – a time honoured Lesley-Raggett tradition so I excused myself by indicating my watch still being on London time. As with the majority of Spanish staff they were gracious, attentive and had a laugh about it. They didn’t mention Brexit. I did leave a tip. An interesting fact – well I thought so – is that the Balneari  Hotel and the Vichy Catalan company were established in 1881 the same year as a certain football club!

IMG_2221So day 1 is nearing its end and my poor planning has been rescued by the fact that the hotel is a spectacular example of modernisme architecture, the town has a lot of fine houses in similar vein and I’m doing a hydrotherapy circuit tomorrow morning just like we did together with such delight in San Sebastian last August. A comparative report will follow.

Calm, Columbus and Cadiz

With final programme and DVD masters delivered to the client in every conceivable version  and the final invoice sent on 28 September we were finally free to go for a real rest. This really was going to be a restorative break with minimal travel – nine days in the parador at Mazagon and five at the one in Cadiz. We flew to Faro and got an airport shuttle bus to take us into Huelva to pick up a hire car so as to avoid the horrendous extras they charge for crossing borders in a rental car. Mistake! The bus dropped people off at lots of villa and resort locations on the way to the border so it took for ever. And who had forgotten that Portugal chooses to be in a different time zone than Spain? So by the time we reach Huelva it’s past one-thirty and the Avis office is now closed till four. So with me wrangling three pieces of luggage and Dee only managing one because of needing her stick we found literally the nearest bar-restaurant and had a lengthy lunch. Avis did sympathise and upgraded us to a large automatic Skoda which drove very well. It’s only half an hour to Mazagon so we arrived in good time to suss out the parador and enjoy our suite. P1010327P1010331We had decided to go for a suite as we were there for such an unusually long stay and it was a decision well made – it was huge with a living room, bedroom, massive bathroom and a balcony.

There were outdoor and indoor pools and although not one of the paradors in a historic building it was extremely pleasant with a good restaurant and a pleasant and relaxing bar.

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Guess which is the 100 year old.

End of blog really, as we just sat around reading, planned a new layout for the garden back home, ate and slept. Right? Nah. Well right next to the parador entrance was a huge pine tree, more than a hundred years old which has been declared a national historic monument. So we had to walk out and view that.

 

Then there was a half day excursion into the Donaña National Park that we couldn’t miss and feet became itchy for a modicum of sightseeing but we did also manage some calm days at the hotel as well. The Donaña trip involved setting off in the dark to arrive at the departure point by eight a.m. But we arrived and got into a long wheelbase truck that took us on a brilliant trip throughout the varied areas of the park. We drove down the sea shore where we saw turtles, into the marshy bits with loads of flamingos and other birds and then into the forests where there were wild boar, deer and wild horses. Then the return trip was through the dunes. Four exhilarating hours of great interest and fun.

One of our friends had spent a year in southern Spain a while back and had told us about taking part in the pilgrimage to El Rocio so as we were only a short drive away we thought we’d go there for lunch and to see what it was all about. The town is like something out of a western with unpaved roads and yellow dust everywhere. Then there are the hermandades or fraternities where the different groups of pilgrims place their statues of the Virgin de El Rocio until it is time to visit her shrine. There’s street after street of white and yellow buildings with homes, bars and hermandades all intermingled and in true movie style there are hitching rails for your horse. We had lunch there and then drove back via the scenic route to Mazagon – a great day out.

P1010438 On another day we also decided to make a further excursion to La Rabida where Columbus set sail for the Indies and found America. There’s a dock on the banks of the Rio Tinto where full size replicas of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María can be visited. They are frighteningly small for voyages of that duration and P1010435danger. There’s an excellent dockside exhibition of what life was like in Columbus’ time and a great idea of how the galley was the most important part of the vessel.

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P1010482Just back inland is the monastery in which Columbus signed his papers confirming that Ferdinand and Isabella had come up with the cash for his voyage. It’s all set in a park with specimen plants and massive palms and a very pleasant few hours were whiled away including a stop for lunch which made somebody very happy.

Columbus was also associated with nearby Palos de la Frontera and Moguer which we saved for another day and proved well worth the visit. On the way we saw massive fields growing strawberries and discovered that this is Spain’s principal area for their cultivation. We also learned that there’s controversy because vast quantities of water are being extracted from the Donaña national park’s scant reserves to the extent that if action is not taken to stop the park may lose its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

In Moguer we were able to see close up one of the carriages and virgin statues for El Rocio as well as cowboys roaming the streets on horseback. There was a splendidly tiled theatre that was now used as a cultural centre where there was an exhibition of local artworks that proved leaveable-behind.

Having chilled for nine days in our splendid suite and had some of the rest we both needed we then set off for Cadiz a city we’d stayed in before – also in October – in 2003. Another surprise en route was field after field of cotton – just as with strawberries in Huelva, there’s an awful lot of cotton in Cadiz. We again stayed at the Cadiz parador but since we were last there it’s been demolished and rebuilt completely in a very modern style which works well. We had a room overlooking the luxuriant Parque Genovés and spent a lot of time on the fabulous pool deck.

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We did do the open top bus tour to get a feel for the whole city – a spectacular cathedral, a lofty watch tower, Santa Catalina castle right next to the hotel, long sandy beaches and a massive cruise ship terminal complete with three floating apartment blocks on a European tour.

Cadiz is a wonderfully compact city best explored on foot. There’s a great market, galleries, bars and restaurants galore and a fabulous amount of modernisme architecture and details on its buildings. We particularly liked some of the tiled advertisements. Cadiz is a real feast for the eyes and the belly. We were amused by the resilience of al fresco diners during a shower – umbrellas raised they carried on regardless.

We had to drive back to Malaga to fly home and foolishly kept the car but it didn’t leave the parador garage during our five days there at €12 a night. Big mistake, that’s another meal! I also had – there’s an end of holiday theme here – a lengthy Skype call with a publisher from the Netherlands to see if I was the right person to edit and native language check a secondary school English course they were revising and reissuing. It transpired that I am and have worked on it on and off for the whole of 2016 and into 2017.

Well we had actually done pretty much what we promised ourselves in combining periods of rest with a little light sightseeing. And we were treated to some absolutely fabulous sunsets.

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The drive back along the coast was fun too viewing Gibraltar from a great height and then driving all along the Estepona, Marbella, Fuengirola, Torremolinos strip towards Malaga airport and home.