- 6 December
impressions of Europe as a crowded, heavily urbanised continent have been
seriously revised over the past few months. Travelling from the northern plains
of Germany through Eastern Europe, Turkey and now Spain, we have seen some very
open country. Not quiet wilderness, but enough space to feel 'at home'.
the Mediterranean coast near Valencia west towards Madrid, the countryside
changes from orange orchards to vineyards to olive groves and finally to
sparsely rocky desert. All this within 200kms.
way we visited the town of Cuenca. The old town sits at the top of a gorge
separated from the new town by two rivers. Many of the buildings appear to
teeter on the edge of this gorge with their balconies overhanging it. A
footbridge across the gorge provides a wonderful photo opportunity.
this country have recorded continuous human habitation for over 10000 years.
First the Iberians crossed the narrow straits from Africa. Then in 1000BC the
ubiquitous Celts invaded (as they do!) from the north. Phoenicians, Greeks and
Romans followed in ancient times. Then in the eighth century, the Moors (Muslims
from north Africa) occupied Spain for almost 800 years. Almost from the first
day of this occupation, the 'reconquista', the re-conquering of Spain, began.
Nobody in Spain mentions the 'Spanish Inquisition' that followed the progressive
return of Christianity to Spain - but then 'nobody ever expects the Spanish
One can only
imagine what the now degraded countryside of central Spain looked like as the
Moors rode across the open plateau to establish their capital at Toledo.
Thirteen hundred years of grazing and farming have obviously had their toll.
Today the land has suffered much the same as parts of Australia. Although it has
only taken us 200 years!
1492 was a
big year for Spain. Toledo, the Moorish capital fell to the Christians and
Columbus began the European 'colonization' of the new world. The defeat of the
Moors is today commemorated in modern Toledo by the display, on the outside
walls of the church of San Juan de los Reyes, of the chains from which
Christians were freed in the final assault on the city. They have hung here for
more than five hundred years.
It's a bit
of a shame that this feverish activity finished in 1492. - Last night, we
arrived in Toledo, driving with more care than usual, as we had lost the 'power
assist' on our brakes. After several, very one-sided discussions in Spanish with
mechanics, we figured that we needed a new alternator. Surprise, surprise... not
only do we have a big sleep in Spain every day from about 1.00 - 4.00pm,
but the 6th and the 8th of December are holidays, followed by a weekend!
So we have to wait a bit for repairs!
The holidays have bought some joy however. A number of the museums in Toledo are free today and as we discovered they are fascinating. Alcazar, the much rebuilt fortress-castle of Toledo was the most interesting. A fortress since the eighth century, the building itself has a thousand stories. The most recent is perhaps what brought it alive for us.
In 1936 the
nationalist forces in the Spanish civil war were held seige in Alcazar for more
than 70 days. In the end, the Communist forces all but leveled the fortress. But
the defenders held out in what is now celebrated as one of the most heroic
actions of Spanish military history. Now reconstructed as a military museum the
citadel records this event and hundreds of other exploits of the Spanish
military over the last 1000 years.
tourists packed the city streets on this coolish (but nowhere near as cold as we
expected!), cloudy holiday. Their main focus was the Carolus Exposition at the
Museum de Santa Cruz. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of
the rule of Carlos V who presided over the 'Golden Age' of Spain.
exploits of the conquistadors? And the wealth and power they returned to Spain
following the defeat of the Aztecs and Incas? This exposition has gathered
documents and works of art celebrating this period from museums throughout
Europe. One of many amazing exhibits was a set of floor plans for the Alcazar
fortress that was used for the reconstruction following the destruction of 1936.
Where did they come from? The city archives of course! Held there since the
extensions to the fortress ordered by Carlos V in the early part of the
brakes to speak of, our main task today was to drive gently to the local Ford
dealer, 1km away, have the required repairs done and hit the road for Avila and
Madrid. - You guessed it! That's not the way it happened.
Ford dealer was easy with the directions from Pancho and Jose from the camping
grounds. Manuel has nothing on these two but more about that later....
by now to explaining complex technical problems across the language barrier, we
soon had an answer to our problem. - No. Not until next Monday (today is
Thursday). Our only option it seemed was to drive to the outer suburbs of Madrid
where the FORD dealer had been alerted to our plight and was standing by with
the appropriate part.
(Spanish Motorway) is somewhat of a driving challenge at the best of times. With
dodgy brakes it's an experience to be savoured only once in an average life
time. (Always leaving the door open for all possibilities.) Finding the dealer
was easy, and our arrival at the front desk sent the receptionist running to the
back of the workshop for help. - Very few Spanish speak even a little English
and this far south, no French either.
in the form of a twenty something guy who greeted us with 'G'day, what's the
problem?'. Turns out this gent (regrettably we never got his name) was born in
Spain, migrated when he was five and returned with his family a couple of years
ago. With his help and the assistance of the workshop manager the errant
pressure pump -(it seems this was the problem after all) was replaced in record
time and we were on our way.
Pancho and Jose at Camping, Circo Romano, Toledo. These two would be a fine
study for a TV comedy show. As most of this week is a holiday in Spain, Pancho
and Jose, the gardener, and night watchman have obviously been left in charge of
the park while the 'real people' have a lo-o-o-ng break. Like many Mediterranean
people, the Spanish seem to be shouting and arguing when in fact they are
engaging in normal conversation and Pancho and Jose engaged in "normal
conversation" most of the day. It's difficult to see what they did the two
days that we were in the park, but they were always about. Dragging things,
yelling at each other. Fixing things, yelling at each other. Moving things
etc... But always at the service of us - the happy campers.
washing in parks usually requires a jeton (token) which is purchased at the
reception. In this case Jose happily sold us a jeton, but then launched into a
long monologue (or it may as well have been!) indicating that there was more to
this washing game than met the eye! When we arrived in the Lavadoros (Washing
room) he and Pancho were busily refitting light bulbs that seem to have been
removed from some areas of the camp for reasons that are far too complex to
explain here. Turning on the light switch produced a shower of sparks and
explosions that would raise the dead. Not a problem for Pancho and Jose (by the
way, these are their real names) simply refitting a second set of bulbs would
obviously solve the problem!
broom stick this time, Jose flicked the cut-out switch on the fuse box. Another
spectacular display. It would seem silly to give up while there were still some
bulbs left, so we loaded up again but no matter how gently Jose flicked the
switch the outcome was inevitable. Guy Fawkes night again!
Jose had had
enough. The washing was not on - the fact that the machine was on another
circuit will have to remain our little secret - and he stormed off. Pancho
however was made of sterner stuff and as we followed Jose back across the park
he protested in the background that he had the answer....We will wash another
The 'rain in
Spain falls mainly on the plain' and today it did, preceded by gale force winds
that nearly blew us off the ring road, but the temperature at 2 pm was a mild
17C. Given that Madrid regularly freezes in December and January, a little bit
of rain, only our third experience of such in 12 weeks, is a small price to pay
for relative warmth.
site tonight was true to form. Having negotiated our way onto the Ring Road, a 3
lane means of avoiding the worst of any big city, it only remained for us to get
off at exit 36. Easy - peasy. Then the lane we were in forked. A 'stay on' (the
ring road) and a hand indication was of course misinterpreted. SO -- we did what
we have done for most other major cities - saw more of it than a lot of other
people. We are well-travelled O'Neills!!
not have the flair and panache of Barcelona or the history of its 'outer
suburb', Toledo. It wasn't until the 16th century that Madrid came into its own
as Felipe II's capital. Like every big city (pop 3.5M) it has its eyesore
suburbs, rundown industrial areas and the feel that it will all be OK once they
'put it all back together'. What it does have is that 'buzz' of hundreds of
thousands of people in the streets for any reason at all. The reason today was
the feast of the Immaculate Conception! A public holiday in Spain where hardly
anybody goes to church but 95% claim to be staunch Catholics.
for the Prado museum first up as the weather was not up to our now mandatory
requirements. Warm with clear blue skies! In fact it actually rained while we
were at the bus stop outside the camping grounds!
are featured here along with other old masters from across Europe. The Prado is
right up there with the Louvre and the Uffizi as one of the world's great art
galleries. Highlights were Goya's 'black paintings' and a small selection of
15th and 16th surrealist works depicting visions of hell and damnation. The
hour’s wait to get in was well worth it!
Picasso a century later, Goya demonstrated an ability to produce everything from
studies of contemporary rural life and landscapes through portraiture to art
that today would be considered 'modern' in style. His 'black paintings' were an
outpouring of the artist's dismay at the political situation of his times and to
some extent his own poor health. The man was seriously depressed!
in awe before the work of Heironymous Bosch - 'el Bosco!'. Painted in the
sixteenth century, his works could easily be shown with 'pop art' of the
sixties. Indescribable! Awesome!
have trusted our luck. When we left the Prado, the sun was out, the sky was
clear and the temperature had risen to a very respectable 12C. From all
directions people flooded the streets. We were glad of the slight chill as we
could wear our coats that act as 'pickpocket protectors'. Theft in crowded
streets like these is not specifically a Spanish thing - more a big city
phenomenon, however, the Lonely Planet as
well as people we have met have warned us about Spain, so we are perhaps even
more cautious than normal.
markets were in full swing. Everything from nativity scenes to gum (Australian
Eucalyptus) sprigs with painted flowers were on sale. We walked the streets with
the ever -growing crowds for a couple of hours and felt that we had seen all
there was for us in Madrid.
He waited at
the fence for a full 20 minutes. Had Paul been misunderstood?
ago our second son James, nine at the time, had what he described as 'a close
encounter of the French kind' with a Moroccan cleaner in Paris. James had been
minding his own business in the Bois de Bologne camping grounds when a gentleman
of the Moroccan persuasion engaged him in what we are sure was an innocent
casual conversation. James just listened and wandered off.
with Spanish shepherds are apparently not as easily terminated. As the sun was
out late this afternoon Paul wandered down to the back of the camping grounds
where a flock of sheep were grazing. Being after 4.00pm, he of course had a beer
in hand! Before he knew it, the shepherd had sauntered over to him and engaged
in a very long and (to him) most amusing conversation. Paul’s part was simply
to nod, smile and point at the sheep and dogs with his can of beer. Nothing more
seemed to be required.
appropriate break in the 'conversation' Paul said, “Buenos Dios”, smiled and
shepherd didn't move. He stood awaiting Paul’s return. Had Paul inadvertently
offer him a beer? - This was Paul’s 'close encounter of the Spanish kind'.
the day we had visited Avila, a medieval walled city about 100kms north of
Madrid - one of the best-preserved in Europe. It was - oh yes - another
beautiful day! The city was a photographer's dream in the winter sunlight.
Spanish tourists were out and about on this long holiday weekend and the streets
were more lively than we suspect they would normally be this time of the year.
have started our return trip north that will take us to the north western coast
of Spain and then on to France where we meet Elizabeth on 22 December. From here
we have only just over a month left to spend in Ireland and England.
expected colder weather and even snow in central Spain. As strange as it may
seem we are looking forward to the inevitable change as we move further north
and west. We came to Europe
expecting a difference, especially the weather, not clear skies and warmth a la
Australia in the winter. Despite having been spoiled by the last many weeks of
perfect weather, we are quite happy at the prospect of a typical European
December. After all, we have the Drizabones, including Paul's lambskin vest, we
only need the right temperature!!!
- 11 December
noises surround us tonight. Surf pounds constantly in the distance and sea
breezes whistle around our van. We are perched on a headland above the Spanish
town of Zarautz close to the French border. It has gone 9.00pm and the
temperature outside is about 15 - 16C. There is a full moon tonight and the king
tides have whipped up waves that were crashing over the coastal roads as we
wound our way along the beautiful northern Spanish coast. Oh Yes. Again the sun
was beating down all day!
Out our side
window we have a panoramic view of the town and the beach. The lights of the
town make it far more attractive than we are sure it will be in the morning. It
is a 'new town'. One of the many modern apartment block-dominated settlements
that seem to herald the Euro-prosperity that Spain, Italy and Greece in
particular have acquired in the last ten years. Older Spanish villages are now
no more than farm storage sheds and barns. Deserted for the nearby comfort of
well-planned and, one must say, fairly attractive apartment blocks (if you like
that sort of thing!).
and Burgos took most of our time yesterday and today. Both are pleasant and
manageable cities with the now 'usual attractions' of a spectacular cathedral
and medieval squares and buildings. Cultural overload is probably to blame for
the previous unfair comment. But after hundreds of cities and towns and
thousands of villages they all begin to merge...
(Elton John's brother), "Says it's (Spain) the best place that he's ever
been" .... "and he should know he's been there a lot". And even
though 'Daniel' is dead, many of his countrymen agree with him and flock here
all year around. Today we saw 'convoys' of caravans towed by GB plated fourwheel
drives, heading south through Spain to Morocco and points further south for the
Basque country and the language is dramatically different to Spanish. Not that
that makes much difference to us! But the street and highway signs that we have
learnt to recognise over the past couple of weeks have been replaced by those in
the local language and the local form of lettering. Just another challenge!
In the next
couple of days we will cross back into France. Many weeks ago we noted that the
'costa ...' commenced on the southern coast of Turkey and ended at the Atlantic
French-Spanish border. Well we are here now and that was a fair statement. We
have not completed the full circle around Spain and Portugal. However, the
thousands of kilometers of Mediterranean resorts that we have driven through
have been amazing. The new tourist developments go on for hundreds and hundreds
of kilometers. In many areas, particularly in Turkey and parts of Spain, cranes
line the coast, building block after block of units for the 'nouveau Euro-rich'.
with Romania and Bulgaria is staggering. Even those more favoured for inclusion
in the 'EC Club', Poland, Hungary, Turkey and the Czech and Slovak Republics can
only dream of the living standards enjoyed by the 'old club' members! And what
of the new nations emerging from the ruins of Yugoslavia?
the next ten years bring?