One of the very best things about producing this blog is that it sometimes becomes a two-way process, sparking reactions from friends as memories are evoked. We have not added these in the past but having just received two vivid reminiscences from Devon friends about their travels in Portugal back in the 1960s and early 70s we would like to share them with you. No names but you know who you are! If you have memories awakened by our travels, or ideas of places we really should not miss, please let us know.
"Thought you would like to know - we visited Lisbon and Sintra before heading off north as far as Oporto on our bikes in 1971. We were then advised not to go any further north because of bandits. We went to Lisbon from Southampton on a cruise ship (big mistake!) and came back from Cherbourg having crossed Spain in the train for 25 hours. It was just before the Portuguese revolution and, there being no other bikes anywhere, we were constantly targeted by students wanting to hear about 'democracy'."
"The names bring it all back as I toured round Portugal with six girls of various nationalities for a couple of months in the 60's selling magazines, speaking atrocious Spanish! I did find the Portuguese loved the British and I was offered several jobs, met the Bahai faith, and generally had a lot of adventures. I remember being given 200 tins of sardines which saved us in hard times but when things were good we dined like kings."
Wednesday 15th April 2009, Guadalupe
For all of you who are under the impression, as I was, that Guadeloupe is an island in the West Indies discovered by Christopher Columbus and now part of France, we have some extra news for you.
When I was a teenager at my convent school we were taught about the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe and pictures of her were displayed in the school chapel, along with Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Vladimir. I'd never been particularly hot on spelling but having paid attention in my geography lessons I knew all about Columbus and Guadeloupe so I simply assumed the reason the Virgin was black was because she came from the West Indies, and promptly turned my attention to more interesting matters - such as where Elvis Presley's new single was in the NME music charts.
Today I have found enlightenment! The island of Guadeloupe was taken over from Spain by the French in 1635, but it is actually named after an isolated little town in the mountains of Central Spain where, in the 13th century a shepherd boy found a carved oak statue of the Virgin, darkened with age, on a river bank. At the time the region was under Moorish occupation and the statue, it was claimed, had been hidden centuries earlier for safe keeping, having been carved by none other than St Luke.
The Spanish king, Alfonso XI prayed to the statue in 1340, just before his victorious battle against the Moors. From that time the statue has been venerated as miraculous and a shrine was established at Guadalupe, visited by pilgrims. A century later the cult was well established and it was because of this that in 1493 Columbus named the island in the West Indies after the little town where we are now camping.
As we have developed into religious groupies, trailing around the ecclesiastical hotspots of Europe, we thought we'd better take a look, particularly as from the map it looked as if it was way off into the mountains, where we hoped to see something other than a flat, barren landscape cut about by motorways. Certainly the route here was very pleasant. Most of Spain that we have so far visited lies on granite and today's landscape was comfortably familiar, reminding us of Dartmoor with its huge tors and open moorland grazed by sheep, cattle and horses. It was though, far larger and more deserted. On Dartmoor olive trees, agaves, cactuses and the occasional palm tree are in rather short supply, though the heathers, oak trees and low, flowering shrubs were a familiar sight, as are the dry-stone walls. We even heard our first cuckoo of the year!
We are a couple of thousand feet above sea level here and the weather has turned very cold indeed. It has also started raining heavily and continuously from lowering black clouds, while vapour hangs low over the surrounding hilltops – another similarity with Dartmoor.
We found the campsite easily on arriving. It isn't in any of our guidebooks, nor is it marked on our maps but we found a mention in our Rough Guide. It is cheap, clean and basic. We are almost alone here and this evening it's teaming down outside with several large puddles to jump between here and the loos.
We've already taken a look in the little town a couple of kilometres up the valley where the monastery looks most impressive standing on the summit of the hill. The first people we saw in the town were a group of wet, shivering, disconsolate French folk chattering volubly. We got the definite impression they'd signed up for an off season package tour to Guadeloupe hoping for lots of sunshine and a few tequilas and couldn't quite work out what had gone wrong!
We looked into the monastery church seeking the Virgin and were just in time to see her disappearing on a revolving stand above the flower bedecked altar, something we considered rather unwelcoming. Apparently though, the Franciscan brotherhood give guided tours of the monastery and the highlight is seeing the Virgin appear in her sanctuary where visitors are gathered to pray. Obviously we arrived just as she needed to answer their prayers.
We contented ourselves admiring the church with its wide gothic vaulting and a painting depicting the baptism in the church of the first Amerindians to convert to Christianity. Apparently too, freed slaves would make their way to Guadalupe to leave their chains as an offering to the Virgin. Someone started playing the organ, filling every corner with the unlikely sound of Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory"! By the time we turned back to the altar the black Virgin had reappeared and was waiting to greet us. We stared up at her, impressed that we were actually gazing on such a venerated little figure but quite unable to appreciate just how vitally important she was to so many pilgrims.
Guadalupe is actually the second place we have visited today. After we left the campsite at Cáceres this morning we drove to the small town of Trujillo, not dissimilar to Cáceres but a little less austere, its mansions having been constructed rather later by conquistadors returning from the New World after amassing enormous fortunes to lavish on their new homes. It seems incredible that so many of the conquistadors all came from this one little town which even today holds only eight thousand inhabitants. The town is hundreds of miles inland standing isolated in the centre of a barren plain, and yet it was from here that the Pizarro brothers and their friends managed to gather a fleet and equip themselves with weapons and horses, then set sail for the Americas, conquer the native Indians with barbaric cruelty and return with more wealth than anyone knew what to do with! From this little town, it is claimed, twenty America nations can trace their origins. The most famous of the conquistadors, Francisco Pizarro, (1475-1541) conquered Peru, discovered the silver mines at Potosi and occupied the Inca capital at Cuzco. A statue of him stands in the main square in Trujillo, facing the house where he and his brother once lived. Also from Trujillo was Francisco de Orellana who explored the Amazon region in the 1540s.
Ian naturally wished to visit the impressive castle above the town, constructed on the remains of an earlier mudéjar building. There were extensive views across the empty surrounding landscape from there and we could see heavy rain sweeping towards us across the plain. Abandoning the castle we headed abruptly back downhill to the shelter of the town but were soaked long before we reached it.
We returned to Modestine where, before moving off I glanced into my wing mirror and saw at very close range indeed the full monty of someone relieving himself beside Modestine's door! He wandered on leaving a large puddle and a traumatised English woman in his wake! We see a lot more of life travelling than we would back home!
Thursday 16th April 2009, Toledo
We have finally moved out of Extremadura and into Castilla-La Mancha.
It rained steadily all night but stopped for a few hours this morning. Ian declared his intention of visiting the monastery in Guadalupe for a guided tour in Spanish by one of the monks. Jill declared she'd had quite enough of monasteries and religious pomp for the time being and would potter around the town for an hour.
So we went our separate ways for a while. First I popped back into the church with our binoculars to take a good look at the black Madonna as she stood sweetly in her Barbie doll outfit on the altar until it was time to slip off to see Ian and several fervent Spanish pilgrims in the monastery behind the altar. Binoculars are really useful in churches making it possible to see details in dark paintings and carvings high in the roof. I get a few quizzical looks though!
Near the monastery is a Parador or state run luxury hotel. In an earlier existence it used to be a medieval hospital and college and still has its mudejar cloisters with several orange and lemon trees surrounding the pretty tiled fountain.
Further up the hill, beyond the immediate vicinity of the pilgrims and tourists are steep streets leading up between ancient houses, several dating back to the 15th century with overhanging balconies entwined with vines. Higher still were smaller, close-packed houses their fronts covered with potted plants. In every corner were aspidistras, ferns, vines and geraniums. Ladies in dressing gowns and slippers, or with cardigans over their blue overalls stood outside their homes chatting, or gathered together in the tiny square at the van that serves as a mobile shop. At several points there were granite fountains with a constant flow of icy water from the surrounding hills that could be seen from the little side streets. The air in the upper town was bitterly cold and the highest hillsides were sprinkled with snow.
Back down in the lower town, while waiting for Ian, I browsed the souvenir shops with their local produce of sugary cakes, sausages, hot pimento powder, dried figs, and best of all, miniature Madonnas of Guadalupe that changed colour according to the weather!!!
At the post office a forthcoming outing for the Virgin was advertised! A trip to Cordoba staying at a smart hotel for any residents wishing to accompany the Madonna on a coach trip for a special mass to be celebrated at the cathedral, followed by a solemn procession through the streets of the city bearing the Madonna, dressed in one of her many travelling frocks, on a silver bier for the faithful of Cordoba to see! A further mass was to be celebrated on the way home at another town of which the Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint. With such a busy social calendar I guess we were lucky to have found her at home this week!
Ian's guided tour, conducted at a gabble that made no concessions to the only non-Hispanic member of the group, let him into the large cloisters with a two level mudéjar colonnade and a strange Gothic shrine surrounded by neat hedges in the middle. Lining the corridors of the cloisters were paintings, apparently of miraculous events in which the Virgin was involved and set into the floor were tombs of the monks.
Off the cloisters opened a series of rooms with remarkable treasures, in one a collection of beautiful embroidered vestments sewn by the monks, in another more than eighty antiphonaries, medieval sing-along books, over a metre high, written on vellum with the words and music of the services in large script so that all could see, beautifully illuminated and mainly dating from the 16th century. A room of paintings and sculptures included three works by El Greco, a small painting by Goya and a series of small oil sketches of monks by Zurbarán. The most magnificent room was the sacristy, beautifully decorated with Renaissance murals and housing in their original frames, and in the setting they were designed for, a series of eight large paintings by Zurbarán related to the life of the monastery. The relic room, also painted in Renaissance style, included the wardrobe of the Virgin's travelling outfits and the crown she wore on special occasions. At this point the lay guide handed over to a frail and shuffling monk to unlock a door and admit us to the holy of holies. Mercifully he spoke slowly and clearly as he described the baroque decorations in the antechamber, and then he let us into the tiny camarin or shrine where the enamelled gilt throne was reverently rotated and the statue of the Virgin appeared. A prayer was said during which Ian looked at the rather crudely carved dark brown heads of the Virgin and the Christ child that peeped out through the ornate robe. Then a relic in a sliver frame was produced and carefully wiped with a cloth by the monk. One by one the group approached to kiss it, except Ian, who carefully angled himself to effect a prompt escape back into the cloister and the main square of the town where Jill was waiting. The cedar-wood statue measures about a metre high and is very similar to the black Virgin we saw in France at Puy-en-Velay. (See entry for 22nd October 2005.)
We moved on after a picnic lunch in Modestine, just as the rain returned. It continued showering throughout the afternoon. Our route took us on deserted, winding mountain roads for over 100 miles. Nobody passed us until we neared Toledo and we had the mountains to ourselves. We can now claim to have seen the heart of inland Spain and have found it magnificent. Winding up through a gigantic rockery covered with rock roses, heathers, wild flowers and low scrubby shrubs, we had constantly changing vistas of rugged brown mountain crags where vultures were gliding to and fro on the thermal currents, alternately silhouetted against the sky or the cliff face where several huge caves and rocky ledges were used for nesting, as evidenced by the streaks of white guano. We pulled in to watch them, fascinated at their size and the effortless beauty with which they hurtled through the air, simply by moving a wingtip or the angle of their tail. They presumably live on dead goats and mountain carrion. Certainly we saw several flocks of very large goats lower down in the mountains and at one point we disturbed a large deer that regarded us suspiciously from the safety of the trees, just back from the road.
Once over Puerto San Vicente, the highest col, we found ourselves on a plateau with endless plantations of olive trees and even a few vines. We have been surprised to find them at such a high, cold altitude but presumably it's usually a lot warmer in summer. Amongst the olive trees there were gatherings of jays, their wings bright blue as they flew up from the grass verges at our approach.
There is virtually no habitation in the mountains but occasional crumbling deserted farmsteads built in adobe bricks. At one point we crossed a stream and passed a tiny house with a tethered donkey, and lower down, a couple of hamlets and a small town. As we descended the land flattened out and arable crops appeared alongside the olives. We also passed an entire field sown with solar panels generating electricity! It would be interesting to know how much energy it produces. It is rather unsightly but probably the most productive crop possible on such a terrain.
Eventually we rejoined the main route to Toledo and soon we were descending into the city. It looks impressive and ranks the maximum three stars in our Michelin guide book. Unfortunately directions for the campsite were rather poor and we crossed back and forth across the city a couple of times before finally finding our way here. At 28 euros and no wifi it is extremely bad value but it is the only campsite so we have no choice. Last night's site was 12.50 euros and suited us perfectly. This one caters for a clientele with large motorhomes and matching budgets. We'd thought of staying for several days and catching the train into Madrid, but now we'll need to think up an alternative plan.