A writer called Giles Tremlett ('Ghosts of Spain') said this of a particular Spanish trait:
'They like the warmth, the solidarity, the sense of belonging that groups give them. That, perhaps, is why their towns and cities pack people together, ignoring the acres of open space around them. Individuality, I discovered when my own children reached school age, can be viewed with suspicion'
Whereas I can't relate to this quote from the point of view of having children, which I don't, I think, I can find truth in it. They do have a tendency towards grouping like sardines. It's natural. It's a family-based life style, like Italy. Big groups, big get-togethers, patriarchs and matriarchs and small streets. Also, on the subject of individuality, I think he may have a point. Last week, from Thursday to Sunday, we had the Easter holidays. I still had to teach the morning of the Saturday, but my Thursday and Friday were free.
On Thursday I had a 'me' day: watched some films, went for a long walk in the milky sun to a lake, watched quiet families herd their unsteady children around the perimeter on feet and bikes. I read my book and watched the silky water play with the light that tinkled through the lolling arms of my private tree while parrots and sparrows showed off and sang for my attention.
On Friday we decided to make the most of the little time we had and go on a day-trip. there were five of us in total: me, Matt and his girlfriend Raquel, Euan and his girlfriend Mahal. I was a welcome fifth wheel. We took Raquel's car and drove at an alarmingly breakneck pace to Cuenca, a small city (large town really, though the locals are proud of its status) some 160km East of the capital. On arrival we raced up through the town, dodging the aforementioned locals and screamed along impossibly narrow streets, lined clumsily with badly parked cars. Raquel wasn't used to this style of 45 degree uphill driving and thought the best course of action was to speed up. Matt closed his eyes, I thought we were going to violently make friends with a wall, and the wing mirror took a bashing. We parked and walked down into town, our legs a little bit more jellied than before.
It was the 'viernes de Pasion', the Friday of the Passion (of Christ), and the town was bulging and straining with the sheer number of people in it. Hundreds, maybe thousands were there. Half were tourists and locals and maybe half were participants in the city's processions. People walked through the streets, some barefoot, in differently coloured robes and cloaks, topped with a traditional (now aggressively lampooned) Klu Klux Klan style hood. They hauled large wooden icons of Christ's struggle and stamped staffs to the beat of the band while locals looked down from their windows. http://img.diariodelviajero.com/2009/04/nazarenos.jpg
It was all very strange, but impressive and at times clearly quixotic.
Something that made me laugh was that people were trying to walk along the pavements by the procession, like we were, but with difficulty. Logical option? Cross the road. I mean, if you have to cross the road you have to cross the road. A road's a road and surely I can cross it. Some people tried this, but were quickly reprimanded and chased away by one of a variety of tall men in full robe/hood combination brandishing a staff and sweeping his clothing authoritatively. It was ridiculous of course. It was probably Jose Fernando, father of two, mechanical engineer. But today he was something else, something more. Empowered by purple.
We finally freed ourselves from the procession and its noise and its confusion and went to look around the old part of Cuenca and the famous 'casas colgadas', hanging houses. Rickety old houses, perched on cliff faces, with makeshift wooden balconies that bravely hung over nothing. A local tourist attraction. The city had a rustic, golden charm that was so reminiscent of many pueblos in Spain. Cuenca, and Valladolid, have a rather sad tale though. They are considered forgotten towns. Once great, they are now places for day tippers and quick holiday seekers. Still, I found it charming and would happily return.
Our next stop? 34km away to Ciudad Encantada, Enchanted City.
Ciudad Encantada has the status 'Sitio Natural de Interes Nacional', natural site of national interest, and it deserves its status. It is a 20km squared natural park of limestone formations formed by a 90 million year old karstic process. It is a landscape spat out of true fantasy. It was in fact used in the classic film 'Conan the Barbarian' with Arnie yelling and running about with a big shiny sword.
Instead of trying in vain to describe the place, I'll include a little youtube video so you can see a few of the different aspects of the park. The best stuff is about half-way through.
This brings me neatly back to the quote from Tremlett. The Spanish tourists in the park seemed to travel in herds. Now, of course, in a park with arrows you tend to follow the arrows. But this was no UNESCO World Heritage Site with strict signs. You - as far as I know - were allowed to walk around wherever you liked. The Iberian flocks stayed to their paths. Sometimes small groups would venture a few metres from the route then gravitate back. Now, I don't know if this is a particularly Spanish trait but it seemed to coincide with what Giles was saying in his book. As the fifth wheel I thought I would give the couples some privacy and go and sate my sense of adventure. I walked off and climbed to the tops of the large karstic arms. Five metres up and alone there was a sea of scratchy stone before me. The wind was blowing hard and brought me smells of dusty pine and sun-baked rock. I ran around for hundreds of yards above the throngs below. I jumped over deserted gulfs between the arms of stone. I regarded the moon-like surface that was once a roof over all of this park. I contemplated the tourists below in what was first solid rock, then a limestone cave and now ground. I then thought I might not actually be allowed up there. I descended in a precarious manner, rock-climber mode, camera slung round my back and all limbs in use. I later burst out of the undergrowth covered in needles and earth and confused a group of sightseers. I was back with the hordes. For a moment though, just a brief moment, I had the craggy, spiky, tops of this park's world to myself.