The following adventures were sponsored by the Mum&Dad Inc. (a visiting corporation).
After a fun visit from my favourite Valencian girls Malou and Imogen I had to play Mr. Host with my parents. I had managed to book a week's holiday prior to the visit so we made plans accordingly:
Sat/Sun - Madrid
Mon/Tues - Consuegra, Ubeda, Baeza, Granada
Wed - Cordoba
Thurs - Calatrava La Nueva, Ciudad Real
Fri - Avila
Sat/Sun - Madrid
Not the most relaxing week, but one of the most satisfying of all my time here.
After negotiating the melee of roads that wind, cross, overlap and get tied up in the centre of the capital we managed to find the exit route. The road leaving Madrid lead us out of the glum, lonely looking outskirts of Madrid - massive advertising boards and washed out warehouses offering furniture - into the low, green plains of Castilla La Mancha. Our first stop was my request, for Consuegra is the home of those famous white windmills that show up in that perennial Spanish classic Don Quixote De La Mancha (the old knight of the book attacks them thinking them giants...silly knight). I wanted to see them. They sit proudly, 11 of them, on a ridge that stands on its own surrounded by lowlands. Chalk-white and perfectly preserved they provide a quixotic (ha ha) contrast with the rusty orange town below and the coppery red and green fields in the distance. These little sail-bearing teeth share the jaw of land with a bulky 12th century castle. When you managed to squeeze past the four separate groups of school children being scared, taught and spellbound by actors in costumes, the view from the top was superlative. If it weren't for the coaches the view would have been as classically Manchegan as a slice of cheese, with a glass of Valdepenas wine and a few lines from the great book.
Ubeda and Baeza
Another two of my requests. These two little Renaissance beauties are a couple of often unknown and little visited towns. They are World Heritage Sites and are just, quite frankly, delightful. I caught wind of them when one of my students recommended that I visit them at some point if I could. I don't like to let down my students. Enter parents. Enter hire-car. Enter handy location on the road south.
The road in question took us into the community of Andalucia and through Jaen province. Jaen is the major olive producing region in Spain and you can see this if you just look out of your car window at any time and any place in the area. The hills, rolling and broad as they are, are studded with little olive bushes. If you imagine a roast turkey studded with so many cloves you can imagine Jaen. Rarely visited reservoirs surrounded by olive-bush dappled hills with copper red, dirty white and green soils, dotted with farm buildings and everything tinkling in the limited sun produced a scene worthy of literature. Unfortunately Quixote didn't get this far. He was too busy chasing sheep and staring down windmills in La Mancha.
So to Ubeda. Nestling up a hill and surveying the great Jaen valleys Ubeda is the bigger of the two sister towns. Its 'zona monumental' houses an impressive array of Renaissance palaces and squares. The small town was shut up and closed due to the time of our visit - the Spaniards will have their siestas - but we could still see the bulk of it. A little visit to the 'Jaen' shop meant that I could procure - via my parents - a 1.4kg plastic jar of Jaen olives. Lovely. We departed from sweet little Ubeda and drove 9km down the road to her little, maybe even sweeter, sister Baeza. Baeza is really small. It's weeny. In fact were it clothing it'd probably be a yellow polka dot bikini. You get my drift. It too sports a selection of grand buildings far larger and more ornate than its size would usually allow. It also does have that 'Sunday morning' air about it that the guidebook mentioned.
As the road drifted into the wide and high peaks of the Sierra Nevada we arrived in Granada. Having stayed in the city previously in 2003, my first thoughts were those of nostalgia. 'Oh, there's that bench I sat on with Ollie'; 'oh, haha, there's that shop where we struggled to buy a bottle of water'; 'there's the square where we always used to relax'. I took my parents to that square first thing. Plaza Nueva is in the heart of the city and sits by the river in the belly of the valley - the Alhambra perched on a hill on one side, the old Moorish (and World Heritage Site) quarter, the Albaicin, rising up on the other.
The Alhambra was our target the following day. In the sun it glows. The Alhambra (Arabic for 'The Red One'), for those of you who don't know, is a vast fortress and palace complex that surveys the whole of the city. This UNESCO site is full to bursting with towers, colourful gardens, glittering ponds, flowers, ochre walls and about two million arches. Beautiful. For us the day was slightly sullied by a prolonged and unforgiving weather system. The clouds wept on us for almost our whole time in Granada. Grand but greyed was our visit.
The brief moment of sun we did have we spent waking around the other UNESCO site, the Albaicin. Twisty, narrow streets, cobbles and white-painted houses create a near impossibly complicated web-like district. It's fun to get lost though. And on our last evening I walked around alone and to the top in order to get a glimpse and photo of the big, beastly Alhambra by night.
Leaving the climbs of the Sierra Nevada and the Arabic muscles of Granada we sped into the bowling over-green hills of the Cordoban countryside. It was like some vast pod of harlequin, myrtle and straw-coloured whales breaching their way across the fields of Andalucia; never showing their heads or tails. After not much time we pulled into our horror-film cheap Cordoban hotel, with its peeling walls, creaking doors and flickering buzzing lights.
Cordoba, after its morning drizzle, was a glorious little pearl of Spanishness. The main calling card of Cordoba is the mezquita and surrounding buildings. You enter the city by crossing a big, clean, preserved Roman bridge. You are then faced with an historic area. You can walk around the majority of the buildings in an hour or so. Big, Gothic/Arab, yellow/brown, dramatic. There are some words.
Before we went into the building I popped into the tourist information office and got us a plan of another little shindig that was going down in the city. The week we had chosen to travel also happened to be one of the weeks that held the Festival of the Cordoban Patios. A festival where the luckier members of the city, who have internal patios, open them to the general public and the competition judges.
Little fountains that dropped water serenely into little pools while little flower pots dotted little walls with many little flowers - flash purple, pink, red, yellow, colours of rainbows - and little tourists with their little cameras take little photos.
These patios lay hidden inside small, pristine white houses - similar to those in Granada but more stately. We left this area, smacking with smells: flowers, pollen, warm leathers and hot boiling pork, and moved to the older barrio.
Prior to our 'history bit' we had some tapas in a sweet little cafe run by a very funny and animated chap. When we paid, he graciously told me that I spoke Spanish perfectly. I beamed modestly and truthfully informed him that I speak well, but hardly perfect. I then made a joke that I'm called a 'guiri-gato' by my housemate. A 'guiri' being an endearing term for a foreigner (similar to gringo) and 'gato' meaning someone with both parents and grandparents from Madrid (basically someone who can truly claim to be 'from Madrid'). He laughed and told me that he once lived in Mexico and Miami and that in both places they called him gringo. I quizzed him as to why. He was Spanish surely. He told me to hang on. He trotted inside for a minute or so. I filled my parents in. He trotted back out. 'This is me when I was thirty'. Some crusty old photos of a young man with wild ginger hair and fair features. 'This is why they called me gringo!' He also lived with the Mayan people for two years, but that's another story...
The mezquita was something else. Proof that sometimes a photo really just doesn't do it. You enter surrounded and confronted and wrapped up in a blanket of endless dark red and white stripy archways. They caterpillar away as far as perspective will allow you to see. Stunning. Mosque-y and stunning. Then, right in the centre, where you can't see for the arches, a massive ivory-white Christian cathedral rises up 50 metres to the heavens. You blink and try and work out where it came from. You walk back a few metres and you're back with the Muslim arches and its spongy half-light. Then back into the light and Christendom. It is, in the very literal sense of the word, unbelievable. And, you know, it's magnificent.
Calatrava La Nueva
Our last stop before returning to Madrid (ignoring the normal but comparatively rubbish Ciudad Real) was a hilltop ruined castle complex called Calatrava La Nueva. The Calatrava Knights were a sect of Cistercian soldier-monks who went a bit power mad and caused the then king - Alfonso X - to set up Ciudad Real in order to keep the prayer/sword wielding nutters in check. The Knights set up the settlement up in 1216 in order to have a vantage point against the Moors. They chose a cracking spot. After driving up the precariously bumpy and badly laid stone road, juddering the car to pieces and causing my seatbelt to lock and choke me, we arrived at the small, empty car park. The weather improved for us and the views from the top were arresting. I spent the next hour and half running around the ruins alone but for my parents. It was like a private school trip, without teachers and with no 'don't do this' signs. We hit the road again and drove through the flower-splashed fields of La Mancha, looking like so many paint dots of an artist thrown lovingly against a green canvas: white daisies, red poppies, yellow ones, pinks and purples spattered the world around the car. We were driving through a piece of landscape art.
After a quick spell in Madrid we took a train to Avila and its famous wind-beaten walls. I shall begin by saying that Avila was cold. Absurdly cold. Bone-shakingly, arse-clenchingly, finger-numbingly cold. Why? Because I only took a cardigan. Why? Because I'm a crap boy scout. Avila was not what I expected. I imagined something twee and preserved like the old quarters in Granada, Segovia, Toledo, Cordoba, Cuenca and other places I'd visited. Instead the town inside was a bit scruffy and bland. However the star of the show and, in fairness to Avila, the 'thing' to see, was the wall. The whole town is surrounded by a perfectly maintained medieval wall. Tall, broad, attractive and imposing, the (so Spanish) yellowy fortifications wind their way around the 'old town' forming a large oblong perimeter. After lunch (the famous chuleton de Avila a.k.a. the big mental steak of Avila) I split with my parents to walk around the outside by myself. I ventured away from the town a little in order to run up a hill (scrambling through a fence I wasn't supposed to and performing some amateur wall-climbing) and get more of an all-encompassing shot of the wall. It's a marvel. It reminded me, like with that massive Manchegan castle, of the focus of a really good school trip.
We came back, dropped off the car, enjoyed Madrid's San Isidro day and put the holiday to sleep.
And that was the week that was.
I now have one week of teaching left.
Time to prepare a bigger trip.