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 Spain 2

5 -  6 December 

Our 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'. 

Driving from 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.

Along the 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.

Parts of 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 Inquisition!'

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.

Spanish 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.

Remember the 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 fifteenth century.

7 December

With no 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. 

Finding the 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....

Accustomed 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.

An Autopista (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.

Help arrived 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.

Back to 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.

Machine 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!

Using a 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 night.

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.

Finding our 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!!

8 December

Madrid does 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.

We headed 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!

Goya's works 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!

Similar to 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!

Crowds stand 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!

We should 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.

Christmas 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.

9 December

He waited at the fence for a full 20 minutes. Had Paul been misunderstood?

Many years 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.

Conversations 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.

At an appropriate break in the 'conversation' Paul said, “Buenos Dios”, smiled and escaped.

But the 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'.

Earlier in 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.

Sadly, we 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.

We had 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!!!

10 - 11 December

Familiar 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!).

Salamanca 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...

Daniel (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 winter.

This is 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'.

The contrast 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?

What will the next ten years bring?

 

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