Toledo and Escorial

Our blog of Extemadura has stirred memories for some of you, including the one below.

We had a fantastic holiday in Extramadura last year in March. We stayed in a lovely small hotel just outside Trujillo. Of course we were birding and saw views of a great bustard, many eagles and vultures and others too many to mention. Trujillo was a pretty town with a castle at the summit and we enjoyed a pleasant evening walking around it following the city walls before having a traditional meal in the centre just off the square. The white storks were nesting everywhere including the main bell tower of the church in the square.

Friday 17th April 2009, Toledo
Today's entry has been written entirely by Ian as I declared myself too weary after spending all day dragging around the claustrophobic, overcrowded narrow streets of Toledo. Undoubtedly there were some excellent moments but I failed to warm to the city so have been only too grateful to leave it all to Ian. …..

After yesterday's stunning views of the buildings of Toledo piled one above the other up the hillside, culminating in the Cathedral and the Alcazar, all crammed together into a loop on the far side of the gorge formed by the Tejo River, we found Toledo a rather frustrating place to visit today. The Toletum of the Romans, then the Visigothic capital and later forming an independent Moorish taifa or state before El Cid rode through the gates with Alfonso VI in 1085, it became the capital of the Castilian kingdom where Christians, Moors and Jews lived together in an intellectual melting pot. All these cultures have left their mark, but it is difficult to hunt them down in the maze of alleys, some of them quite scruffy and bedecked with dangling electricity cables, along most of which traffic still edges its way, forcing pedestrians into doorways. So, we feel we have not done the place justice. Our first objective, the Cathedral is hemmed in by buildings and we discovered that a quite high charge had been introduced to do anything but stand by a chapel kept open for the devout and gaze on the massive aisles and monuments. The municipal market proved to be nothing but a supermarket with a few stalls attached. The museum in the forbiddingly massive palace known as the Alcazar, where in 1936 Franco's nationalists held out against a siege of Republicans for two months, was closed. Nevertheless the regional public library occupies a rambling series of rooms on the eighth floor of the Alcazar with free internet access and wonderful views over the rooftops to the surrounding hills and the Tejo valley.

Cathedral, Toledo

Cathedral from the Alcazar, Toledo

The Visigothic Museum, housed in the Mudéjar church of San Román, provided a unique insight into this period of Toledo's history with fragments of seventh-century masonry and jewellery reminiscent of the decoration to be found on Celtic crosses in Britain and in Saxon graves such as Sutton Hoo. Particularly impressive were the golden votive crowns, including some belonging to the Visigothic kings. The exhibits were set in a brick building with keyhole arches and medieval frescoes.

San Román, Visigothic Museum, Toledo

Visigothic votive crown, Toledo

The highlight of the day was the opportunity to see an impressive number of El Greco's paintings, gathered together in the Museo de Santa Cruz in an exhibition to explain his rediscovery in the early 20th century after his unique visionary style had fallen out of favour on his death. Perhaps the fact that he arrived in Toledo in 1577, just after the Spanish capital had been moved to Madrid in 1561 did not help, but undoubtedly his style was very different from the more realistic painting in vogue in the early 17th century. His elongated forms reminiscent of his Greek origins, his contorted limbs, moving drapery and windblown clouds, all writhing in an almost hallucinatory dance called to mind several later artists, for example the visionary works of William Blake or even the dream images of Chagall with their floating figures. For all the lack of academic accuracy, the pointed noses, the distorted postures, the paintings have a powerful impact. We were treated to close-up views of his paintings of Christ and the twelve apostles, the Tears of Saint Peter, the Assumption of the Virgin and many others where the figures sometimes floated above impressionistic views of Toledo.

Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, Toledo

El Greco's vision of Toledo

Chains from freed Christian slaves hanging in the Edificio Santa Fe, Toledo

The Tejo from the Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo

The exhibition was held in the Edifico de Santa Fe, and in the beautiful Renaissance Hospital de Santa Cruz the Museum offered another impressive free exhibition. This used as an excuse the bicentenary of the Peninsular War, with the title Spain 1808-1814: from subjects to citizens. An opportunity to display a series of portraits of statesmen, the Bourbon royal family with their lantern jaws, common people, scenes of daily life, military paraphernalia, furniture, ceramics, costumes and exhibits to show scientific developments and ideas of the time. Of particular note were the exhibits to show the growing liberty of the press over the period and the political, cultural and scientific ideas being spread abroad. Of personal interest was a book showing early examples of sign language.

Mudejar details in the Edificio de Santa Fe, Toledo

Sign language manual dating from 1796, Toledo

Renaissance courtyard, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo

Moorish well, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo

We also explored some of the town defences, including the Bisagra Gate, through which El Cid would have entered Toledo and the Mudéjar Puerta del Sol. Many of the early buildings within the medieval walls are built with flat bricks and the churches have attractive rounded apses. Many are constructed on the sites of mosques or synagogues and preserve original features inside the later structures. But many of these we failed to track down before returning exhausted to the campsite where the rain played games with us, waiting until we had placed our bikes outside to make room before starting to pour down

Bisagra Gate, surrounded as always by traffic, Toledo

Alfonso VI by the Bisagra Gate, Toledo

Puerta del Sol, Toledo

Iglesia Santiago del Arrabal built in brick, Toledo

Toledo from our campsite

Sunday 19th April 2009, El Escorial
(Jill back with you today.) We moved on from Toledo yesterday morning, first driving around the city on the other side of the river Tejo as it winds through a ravine, surrounding the town. Toledo is a city best enjoyed from a distance. It looked quite splendid from the hills but once within the city walls everywhere is too tightly packed together to fully appreciate much of its architectural beauty.

Toledo from the far side of the river Tejo

Wide angle view of Toledo

We pottered our way the hundred miles or so up to El Escorial, at first across a flat, uninspiring plain that is exactly how one imagines inland Spain to be but always with distant views of the granite mountains. Eventually we reached them and turned off into quieter, more rural routes, driving through a steep, moorland landscape that gradually rose higher as we moved northwards. Our intention was to skirt Madrid towards the north-west, having no desire to get swept up in the traffic of the city's urban conurbation.

Right in the loneliest part of the moorland we turned off towards a sign for a tiny rural hermitage, intending to picnic there. Suddenly we came across several enormous parabolic radio telescopes. We'd discovered NASA's Deep Space Network European base!

What goes around comes around. Last year NASA asked us if they could use one of our Mexican photos in a publication concerning storms. Yesterday they gave us a free tour of their visitors' centre and a film in English, shown just for us, explaining what their Deep Space Network (DSN) is all about! While we were thus entertained their DSN gurus slipped outside and inspected Modestine with great interest. They are currently looking for a new vehicle for their forthcoming manned probes of Mars and Saturn and are looking for something really tiny offering all the comforts of home coupled with the manoeuvrability to cope with the Martian terrain. Modestine was thrilled at the thought, explaining that she'd pretty well done Europe over the past four years and was looking for horizons new. They explained to her the necessity of having solar panels fitted to her roof to generate her energy as diesel was in short supply on Mars and that she'd need a parachute for the final descent in about four years time. She's a faithful little thing though and before agreeing she wanted to know whether we'd be piloting her. NASA seemed agreeable and put the offer to us. Would we train as astronauts for the first manned mission to Mars using Modestine as our landing craft/living accommodation? "NO WE WON'T" was our unanimous reply! So Modestine has regrettably declined NASA's offer saying she'd sooner stay with us and content herself with the canals of Amsterdam and the M25 London ring road, rather than the canals of Mars and the rings of Saturn without us.

Modestine meets NASA's Deep Space telescope, Navahonda

Lonely setting for tracking the moons of Saturn, Navahonda

Seriously, it did seem amazing that as we sat drinking mugs of tea in Modestine with cows grazing in the field beside us and the arid mountains surrounding us, the huge parabola looming above us, slowly turning its bowl across the sky, was receiving digital data sent back from Really Deep Space! Madrid is one of three DSN centres around the world constantly monitoring the data sent back from various space missions into DS dating back to the 1960s! The others are at Pasadena in California and at Canberra in Australia. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 passed by Uranus and Neptune many years ago and headed right out of our solar system, beyond the reach of any possible signal reception from the DSN. Others though, are busily sending back data on the moons of Saturn and the surface of Mars and new projects are being planned.

We eventually continued and sought out the little hermitage of Navahonda, isolated in the hills at the end of a sandy footpath edged by dry stone walls. The rough fields beyond were covered in wild fennel, bare granite boulders, low trees and scrubby bushes. The hermitage, when we found it, was locked, standing isolated in a lonely and picturesque setting.

Hermitage of Navahonda

Returning to Modestine, we continued through the mountains, passing through the occasional village, our route steadily rising. The twisting road came suddenly out onto an open vista to the far horizon. The ground dropped away and in the far distance we could just make out several tall towers that must be part of Madrid. Around and above, the mountains were encrusted with snow that dazzled white in the afternoon sunshine. It was quite magnificent.

From there on the road curved and twisted downwards in an endless series of bends. Modestine takes them very cautiously and we were soon heading a motorcade of vehicles. This was particularly frustrating as we rounded a curve to see the 16th century monastery of El Escorial set in a hollow, surrounded by mountains with snow covered peaks beyond. With nowhere to stop on such a road this is the best photo Ian could get through the windscreen.

Monastery of St. Lorenzo de El Escorial

St. Lorenzo de El Escorial in its setting

The rain started in true earnest as we neared the campsite. We were escorted to an enormous pitch and left there in torrential rain which continued until well after dark. We were grateful to get the electricity connected and get ourselves dried out.

This morning the weather has changed completely. It has been warm, dry and sunny. The waterlogged ground of last night has drained away and we have spent a very enjoyable day around the monastery in the upper town known as St. Lorenzo de El Escorial. The monastery is really more a palace and art gallery. It was built by Philip II, (one time husband of Mary Tudor of England) after he had moved his capital from Toledo to Madrid in 1561 as a residence and mausoleum for the royal family. It is absolutely vast. In design it is actually very plain, something that renders it timeless and adds greatly to its attraction. Ian though, commented that the monastery looked more like a factory, intended for Mass production!!!

View from the campsite

Monastery of St. Lorenzo de El Escorial

Monastery of St. Lorenzo de El Escorial

Inside we spent several hours wandering through its countless halls and galleries. There was an exhibition about the construction of the palace, the architectural plans, the tools used and various models explaining 16th century construction techniques. Next came the art galleries where the various royal collections were displayed. These were a cornucopia of some of the great European painters of the time with Italian works by Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese, Spanish works by Ribera, Zurbaran and Navarrete, numerous Dutch and Flemish works, including Van der Weyden, Breugel and Bosch, and of course, a selction of El Grecos. His style though, did not always find favour with Philip II and his works were relegated to places of lesser importance around the palace. There were also a number of contemporary Brussels tapestries based on the fantasy figures found in the surreal Bosch paintings.

Next we moved on through the vast building to the palace of the Bourbon kings, passing through the various reception rooms and galleries, bedrooms and living quarters, even looking upon the bed in which the pious and gout-ridden Philip II died in 1598.

After they died the bodies of the royals were taken for a twenty year sojourn in the Pudridero Real of the basilica to gently rot away, after which their bones were transferred to the pantheon. Here we wandered past row after row of Bourbon monarchs, their tombs laid out side by side as neatly as a freshly opened packet of chocolate cream biscuits.

The basilica with its forty five separate altars and numerous religious painting by the great masters was closed to the public today. I cannot say I'm sorry really though it did mean we missed the putrifaction room and the reliquaries with the entire bodies of ten saints, plus 144 assorted heads, and 306 arms and legs.

Finally we visited the library, how could we not? It contains 45,000 printed books from the 16th and 17th centuries and over 5,000 manuscripts in Latin, Arabic and Spanish. The books are beautifully bound and placed on the shelves with their gold leafed fore-edge facing outwards, their spines against the back of the shelves. This was fairly common practice in the 16th century, though something we found strange to see. (Incidentally, we discovered in the public library in Toledo that the books were arranged on the shelves from the bottom to the top. We'd seen it once before in the north of Spain and been told it was normal practice. Until Toledo though, we'd never seen it elsewhere.)

From the windows of the monastery we'd looked out onto the formal gardens below and across a peaceful landscape of orchards and grazing cattle to the surrounding mountains. Once we left the palace we investigated the gardens, which were simple but charming with tubs of camellias and orange trees in every alcove, numerous circular pools with fish and fountains at the hub of little walkways of elaborately cut box hedges surrounding small formal flower beds. The views from the terraces were quite lovely.

Gardens of the monastery of St. Lorenzo de El Escorial

View from the gardens of the monastery of St. Lorenzo de El Escorial

Monastery of St. Lorenzo de El Escorial seen from the gardens