Segovia and Avila

Wednesday 22nd April 2009, continued. Segovia
As dusk fell last night back at the campsite at El Escorial we were assailed by the rasping, screaming sound of crickets in the surrounding trees. It is unbelievably loud and at first we thought it was the whirr of an electric generator! First thing this morning though, we woke to find the campsite management out spraying all the trees with insecticide! Modestine didn't really enjoy being soaked with the stuff and we had to retreat inside for our breakfast!

Last Sunday, after visiting the monastery of El Escorial we drove to the nearby Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen). It lies very near the campsite and is the final resting place of Generalissimo Franco. It is supposed to commemorate those who died during the Spanish Civil War be they Nationalists or Republicans. However, according to our Rough Guide book it was built on the command of Franco and is primarily a monument to him and his Falangist party. The Republican involvement was mainly that of political prisoners, quarrying out the stone and building the monument as forced labour. An official Spanish guidebook we consulted makes no reference to this, simply stating that the work was carried out by quarrymen living in the surrounding villages. A cross stands over the dome of the mausoleum; it is 150 metres high and 46 metres wide and is reputed to be the largest cross in the world.

Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), near Madrid

Turning into the gates of the cemetery on Sunday we encountered a barricade and an official demanding five euros each to enter! We were not paying money to look at the tomb of a megalomaniac fascist dictator! We reversed Modestine backwards through the gate, to the annoyance of the following vehicle, and left. We noticed that it is free on Wednesday mornings however, so this morning we returned. Once through the gate, a road leads up into the mountains for six kilometres, passing through pine forests, the snow covered mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama creating a magnificent setting for the massive monument that lies at its heart. On a granite outcrop, set against the brilliant blue sky, stands the stone cross, visible for miles around. Beneath it, hewn directly out from the hillside on which it stands, is the basilica, supposedly commemorating the fallen on both sides during the Civil war. It is where the remains of Nationalists and selected Republicans, killed in the fighting, are buried. In reality it is undoubtedly intended as a fitting resting place to Spain's great dictator whose tomb stands immediately behind the altar. In front of the entrance to the basilica is a massive stone esplanade above which towers the cross, with huge, heavy, fascist style allegorical figures at its base. There are also stupendous views over the surrounding countryside from here.

Gigantic cross, Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid

Surrounding landscape at the Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid

The basilica was constructed between 1940 and 1958 and consecrated in 1960. It is heavy in style and enormous in size being a tunnel cut deep into the hillside, the rounded roof showing as hewn rock between ribs of dressed stone. The walls are hung with Belgian tapestries, copies of 16th century works. Along each side are several altars housing the remains of the dead while over each is a different, imposing image of the Virgin. Certainly it is a stunning piece of architecture and the art work – sculptures, tapestries, bronzes, iron statues of Spanish saints, allegorical figures, lamp-standards and leatherwork altar pieces – are powerfully effective. It did not feel a religious place however, despite the massive adjoining monastery where the monks have responsibility for safeguarding the monument.

Inside the basilica cut into the rock face at the Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid

Cross and the monastery at the Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid

We admit to a sense of distaste and unease, but as Ian said, it is in reality a memorial to both sides - so obviously is it a memorial to the Falangist party that it inevitably makes you think of those on the opposite side.

There was far more to see than we had expected and a great deal to try to understand concerning Spain's unhappy 20th century history. So it was nearly midday before we left and made our way up and over the mountains towards Segovia. At the top of the pass we found a vantage point to stop for a picnic with views down to the plain and across towards Madrid. Up here the air was cold and snow covered the nearby mountains.

Picnic spot on the way to Sevogia

Soon we were in Segovia. It's a stunning little city of 14th to 16th century mansions and palaces in golden-brown stone and pretty squares with fountains, edged with arcaded buildings. Its most stunning feature has to be the Roman granite aqueduct, 800 metres long with 166 arches, built without mortar, striding, 30 metres high, across the entrance square to the old town!

Roman aquaduct, Segovia

Roman aquaduct, Segovia

Other features of note are the cathedral and the Alcazar, this latter looking exactly like the prototype for a Walt Disney fairy tale castle! It stands on a promontory overlooking the plain that surrounds the town. We plan to visit it tomorrow. For the rest, today, we contented ourselves with exploring the delightful streets of this beautiful old town.

Decoration on the late gothic cathedral, Segovia

Alcazar, Segovia

Rooftops of Segovia

Plaza Mayor, Segovia

Its gold-coloured little Romanesque churches seem to absorb and reflect the warmth of the sunshine. They are so different from the gothic and baroque churches we have seen so far in Spain. As elsewhere, storks have moved in, cluttering the church roofs with their ungainly nests. They are very likeable birds though and are supposed to bring good luck to the towns where they settle.

San András, Segovia

San Martin, Segovia

Vera Cruz, 13th century Templer church on the plain outside the city walls, Segovia

We found a small museum open and went inside, as much to see the building as its contents. Originally it had been a 15th century inn, the rooms constructed around a cobbled courtyard with a ferny fountain. It had heavy wooden doors, timbered ceilings and a small, uneven gallery overlooking the courtyard from the second floor. The rooms were used for an exhibition on printing and a permanent display of paintings of Segovia - the personal collection of one of the town's benefactors.

Museum courtyard, Segovia

Lady of Spain, Segovia

Tiled room in the museum, Segovia

Thursday 23rd April 2009, Segovia
It turned really hot again during the day though the nights get down almost to freezing. It's nearly 8pm and it's still 24 degrees but this morning we were really glad to use our little heater to warm up. We're becoming quite tough these days and even used the showers without flinching despite the lack of outside doors on the toilet block and snow on the hillsides!

Having done a machine load of laundry we left it to dry and took the bus into Segovia. There we discovered it is a regional public holiday, not sure why, and the city museum was free for the day. It covered archaeology and local history, manufacturing, the woollen industry, spinning, weaving and a variety of other activities upon which the wealth of Segovia was once founded. By the time we left my foot had decided to play up so we limped to one of the bars for beer and tapas, a very enjoyable experience.

Between 2 and 5pm everyone goes off to lunch and almost everywhere that wasn't already closed for the special holiday closed for the afternoon. The cafes, restaurants and bars were all heaving and a band was entertaining holiday makers in the main square.

We made our way slowly, with me still limping, to the Alcazar or castle which was open right through lunch though the crowds had mainly disappeared to the bars. Yesterday's comment about it looking like a Walt Disney fairytale castle was nearer the mark than I'd realised. Apparently Disney actually used Segovia's alcazar as the model for his own fantasy castle! It dates back to the 12th century though almost nothing of that remains. It was from this castle that Isabella of Castille had herself crowned monarch in 1474. Philip II made many changes including adding the round slate turrets to the towers giving it a Germanic appearance. In 1762 the Royal Artillery School was founded in the castle where it remained until it was badly damaged by fire in 1862. It was subsequently rebuilt as it looks today and handed over to the Ministry of War. It now houses the Military Archives. The interior was interesting with some excellent views from the galleries and windows down onto the plain that surrounds the city where several beautiful, honey-coloured Romanesque churches stood isolated outside the walls. Otherwise, the castle contained a military museum that included, as well as weapons, material concerning chemistry and geology. There were also countless sets of ceremonial armour that looked extremely impractical. In the hot Spanish sunshine the knights would have fried inside them!
Ceiling in the Alcazar, Segovia

Inside the Alcazar, Segovia

Don Quixote and Rosinante, or possibly Ian and Modestine, Segovia

Monastery outside the city walls seen from the alcazar, Segovia

My foot, which has a badly knitted break, had refused to get better and walking on the rounded cobbles was so painful Ian reluctantly abandoned his plan to walk right round the city to view it from the plain below and accompanied me back to the bus stop. We'd had a very enjoyable day but there was still so much we'd not fully explored. The cathedral we decided to give a miss as there was a 3 euro charge to get in. Several beggars around the door were trying a similar tactic on people coming out! However we stopped to admire the beautiful Romanesque church of San Esteban with its square tower and its arcade, the soft creamy stone of its carved capitals worn away by centuries of weathering.

Cathedral, Segovia

Delightful Romanesque church of San Esteban, Segovia

Arcade of San Esteban, Segovia

Incidentally, the buildings of Segovia, regardless of age, are frequently decorated with scraffiti, a process that involves scraping away at the facing plaster leaving a raised pattern on the surface which may then be painted in a contrasting colour. Something that is visually far more appealing than the graffiti so often seen elsewhere!

Scraffiti on the walls of the Palacio de Mansilla, Segovia

It was a relief to get back to Modestine and put our feet up with a coffee for a while. Several new arrivals on the campsite came to chat in a variety of languages, and we now have maps, guides and addresses of campsites in Salamanca and Avila that have been passed on to us. After a rest my foot has greatly improved and providing I can avoid cobbles tomorrow it should soon recover completely.

Friday 24th April 2009, Salamanca
My hopes for a cobble free zone today were in vain. Although the pain had disappeared, after a couple of hours wandering within the walled city of Avila with its cobbles, I am back to square one this evening.

The weather generally has turned very hot and the air is dry and dusty. The countryside of this part of inland Spain is neither interesting nor beautiful. The mountains have disappeared and we are out on the flat, sunburnt, windblown, treeless plain. Many fields are areas of bare earth, though thanks to gigantic watering systems that stretch across the landscape, there are also extensive areas of arable crops. The main industry seems to be road building with all the accompanying scars, piles of debris and heavy plant equipment. We have seen several areas of allotments or smallholdings where farmers in sunhats are out in the heat raking hopefully at what looks very poor soil. Even if they succeed in planting out their vegetables, how do they hope to keep them watered?

We reached Avila mid morning and parked easily, thanks to the advice of our Dutch neighbours last night who had spent yesterday in the town. Avila has two essential assets to bring in the tourists. First, it is a walled city on a hilltop overlooking the plain. This describes many Spanish cities but Avila still has its 11th century walls completely intact and they offer a magnificent sight as you arrive at one of the several town gates. With their ninety towers they seem in far too good condition to be entirely original but they alone merit a visit to the town.
City walls, Avila

Avila's second attraction is that it was here that St. Theresa of Jesus was born to a wealthy family in the 16th century. Even as a young child she was obsessed with religion, deciding, at the age of seven, to run away with her brother and seek martyrdom fighting the Moors! As they had been driven out of this part of Spain long ago she was a bit late off the mark.

Hey brother, I've had a brilliant idea for a new game. Lets get ourselves martyred by the infidel! Avila

Later, against the wishes of her father she became a nun, went on to found several monasteries and became one of Spain's all time best sellers with her autobiography recounting her visions of Christ and her relationship with him. Now she has become Avila's greatest money spinner with flocks of religious tourists (and us) pouring into the monastery church constructed over the house on which she was born, and crushing into the preserved room of her birth, now dripping with gold religious icons, altars, candelabras and holy pictures.

Convent of St. Theresa, Avila

There is a museum which we avoided, where anything and everything she may possibly have been connected with is gathered together. Elsewhere in the town we chanced upon another collection of bits and bobs connected with her life including the skeletal third finger of her right hand sporting a very pretty ring. Our guidebook mentions that Avila has now received back her right hand - minus the third finger presumably - which, during the period of Franco's dictatorship, adorned his bedside cupboard. What an endearing character he was.

Around the town there are cake shops selling heart-shaped iced biscuits pierced by silver arrows, symbolic of the way the Saint's heart was pierced by Christ during some of her nocturnal chats with Him. Beautiful presentation boxed of chocolates and sugar biscuits are sold with her portrait and name on the lid and it is generally all very tacky and horrid.

In the centre of Avila we found a large vegetable market crowded with customers buying whole carrier bags full of apples and the most enormous red peppers we've ever seen. Restaurants in Europe rarely seem to serve vegetables, pacifying diners with a few scraps of salad which they always leave, but we pass people struggling home, weighed down with several carriers full of market produce. So presumably vegetables are things to enjoy in private at home.

Central square with market, Avila

Of course there are the usual surfeit of churches, mainly Romanesque and built in honey and cream coloured stone. What really attracted us most about Avila though was an excellent museum housed in one of the old mansions that we chanced upon entirely devoted to the Celtic people of the region, the Vettones. They were responsible in about the first and fourth centuries BC for the verracos, about 400 roughly carved granite sculptures of boars or bulls which are scattered around the centre of Spain, particularly in the province of Avila. They are thought to double up as territorial markers and fertility symbols for the crops and livestock. They are really rather endearing, so much so that an animated one was used in a video to introduce the many castros or fortified settlements that are to be found in the highlands of the region, deserted when the Romans forced them to settle in the lowlands around the second century BC. Unlike similar settlements in Britain the buildings were rectangular rather than round and, as well as strong defensive walls, they had fields of pointed stones outside the settlements – a sort of prehistoric tank trap.

Verracos used as territorial markers by the Vettones, Avila

Verracos used as territorial markers by the Vettones

From Avila we drove directly to Salamanca, about 100 kilometres further on. The campsite is beside the River Tormes leading directly into the centre of the city some two kilometres away but for today we have contented ourselves with a brief respite from culture, relaxing with our guidebook, Jill's Elvis music and mugs of tea on the campsite. Incidentally, Ian has lost his sunhat again, the second in six weeks. Over the past four years since we have started travelling he has rarely moved more than a few yards without a map; a sunhat he uses rarely but so far he's lost at least ten of them yet not a single map! I have to prise away from him the free ones we pick up at each town we visit or Modestine would be unable to cope with the extra load!