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.

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 hereĀ 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.

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.

https://goo.gl/images/gPHmBn

No frills and great thrills

After a lovely wedding of two neighbours who are also great friends on Saturday, Sunday morning saw me bright and early at Gatwick to set off for Spain for ten days or so. I’m flying with ‘no frills’ Norwegian who encourage you to check in at their automated terminals. So I enter my booking code and it is declined. I ask a helpful official who advises trying another machine as they “can be temperamental” – please preserve me from machines with mood swings! Next terminal is having a good day and so takes my details – careful to match my full name this time after previous Etihad experience – and prints out not only a boarding card but a luggage label. This is real DIY travel. Through lengthy security and off to the lounge for breakfast. But no, despite my pass I’m not allowed in as the lounge is completely full because of a number of delayed flights. Not a good start. However the Priority Pass is accept for breakfast at another cafe so complete grumpiness and rumbling tum are avoided.

We board quickly and I get a window seat, stow everything above except the Observer which Malcolm delivered just as I was leaving home. What a fool am I! It’s a lovely clear day and the view of the Isle of Wight from 10,000 feet or so was amazing but camera and phone were in the overhead locker and my B and C companions are asleep. It just filled the frame of the window perfectly and looked like a postcard. The Needles were a bit black from up here because of the low sun from the east but otherwise a great shot I missed. The Channel Islands looked good too. So onward to Madrid, pick up a car and get to Toledo in time to check in and enquire if any TV channel nearby is showing Watford v Tottenham. Negative. Annoying but thanks to Matchday Live on the Watford website I’m taken through the dull sounding first half by John Marks and Rene Gilmartin. Still 0-0 at half time is a result already. Then the mad second half begins with an own goal of freakish nature it seems and then we equalise and then go 2-1 ahead and the vocal level of commentary is such great I have to turn it down to avoid upsetting the neighbours on their balcony. Can we hold out for five minutes of added time? Yes! Wow – I need a lie down now! 5 games played, 5 games won.

As a friend of the Parador chain I get a free drink on arrival so I think this is the time to celebrate so I go to the bar, present my chit and down a beer as the sun starts to slide downwards and lights up Toledo with a wonderful soft light.

I’ve never been here before but look forward to exploring over the next few days – lots of El Greco to find, the massive Alcazar on the right and the cathedral in the middle look worth a visit and later at dinner – sorry vegetarians local venison with some suitable red wine – these were illuminated to look like beacons in a starry hillside. And so to bed ready to explore tomorrow.