Archive for November, 2016

Málaga to Madrid, with many
diversions along the way.

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

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Málaga.

The relaxing and partying part of our trip was over and it was now down to the touring.

We picked up our rented Seat Leon in Granada and headed south to the coast and Málaga and eventually Madrid.

Our first stop after leaving Granada was at Alhama de Granada. The locals were preparing for a festival and bull fight, that was to start on the weekend.

Unfortunately we were three days too early.

It would have been good to be there for the festival but not the bull fight.

Our apartment in Málaga was in the centre of town and an olive’s pip spit away from the cathedral. There was a restaurant and bar, El Jardín, just outside our entrance. It was so close to our accommodation that the apartment’s WiFi still worked while we were having an evening drink.

The temperature was ten degrees lower than Granada but the humidity was way higher.

Our host, Pepe, had suggested that we go to El Pimpi, a wine bar and restaurant. Apparently it’s an institution in Málaga and not to be missed.

It was a very well oiled tourist machine.

The service was swift, the prices reasonable and it’s vast. It also proudly boasts photos of many well known people who have visited there over the years.

Sean Connery and Tony Blair are two that I recognised, however the snaps of them were taken well before they became famous.

Looking for some exercise we had a walk along Málagueta. This is a long stretch of sandy beach, not far from the centre of Malaga, but then everything is within walking distance there.

The Picasso Museum in Málaga is housed in the elegant Palacio de Buenavista, which was another short walk from our apartment.

The irony of the Picasso Museum is that Pablo, Málaga’s favourite son, last visited the city when he was 19 years old – he lived to be 92.

The narrative of the museum is all about Picasso’s belief in what art should do.

“Art is both an offensive and defensive weapon.”

The collection spans eight decades of his work and includes ceramics, portraiture, landscaped and sculpture.

One piece that fascinated me was his 1921 ‘Mother and Child’. This was done in the monumental style of Cézanne and Renoir and seems to allude to a father figure that’s almost fused in with the mother.

He is in the shadows but his face and left arm are distinctly masculine. This painting was a celebration of Picasso’s joy and amazement at becoming a father.

Picasso’s ceramics and simple line engravings still remain my favourites.

There was huge activity in the Cathedral, which was just across the road from our room. It was festival season in Spain and Málaga Cathedral was in the midst of the Festival of the Holy Virgin Mary.

The streets were shut off to make way for the bands, community groups, police and religious icons that were paraded around the cathedral. It was constant, as they came out of one door of the church and then in another.

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Ronda and the White Villages.

We were originally going to stay in Ronda and explore the White Villages from there.

However when we went to book accommodation there was nothing available within our price range. We tried to stay at the Parador in Ronda once before but it was closed due to industrial trouble. This time the rooms available were so expensive it would have used up a weeks worth of our travel allowance.

This all turned out to be due to yet another festival.

The Festival of Pedro Romero (1754-1839) is a celebration of one of Spain’s most famous bull fighters. Pedro is said to have changed the style of fighting bulls. He fought the bulls on foot, rather than horseback and used a cape and sword.

Our next option was to stay in one of the White Villages and explore the Pueblos Blancos from there.

We chose Júzcar.

This village wasn’t white at all but Smurf Blue.

In 2011 Júzcar was selected to be the venue for the launch of Sony Pictures ‘The Smurfs 3D’. This required the village to be painted Smurf Blue.

It took three weeks, 20 painters and 9,000 litres of paint to transform this white village to a blue one.

Later that year the residents voted to keep their village blue and were rewarded in 2013 by becoming the promotional venue for ‘Smurfs 2′.

The Smurf theme runs throughout the town with statues and murals of Smurfs, Smurf gift shops and mushroom shaped information booths.

It’s unique, a bit chintzy but a lot of fun.

And a very good marketing move by the residents.

Situated in the Upper Genal Valley, Juzcar is one of seven White Villages, Paruata, Cartajima, Pujerra, Igualeja, Faraján, Alpandeire and Júzcar.

Júzcar is more a Pueblos Azul than Blanco.

The White Villages were why we were in the area but discovering a blue one was a bonus.

The White Villages were originally built by Berber farmers from North Africa. They settled in Andalusia in the 9th and 10th centuries, during the early days of Moorish rule. By the 11th century the Christian reconquest forced the farmers to move to higher ground. The Moorish tradition of enclosed narrow streets, built in inaccessible hillside locations made their villages safer from attack.

But not that safe as every one has a church, convent or monastery. These were all built over the ruins of former mosques.

Our hotel in Júzcar, was the aptly named Hotel Bandolero, was run by David and Iván. David was originally from NYC while Iván is Spanish and comes from just outside of Madrid.

It had a pleasant atmosphere and the food was excellent, not surprising considering that Iván is a London trained, Cordon Bleu chef.

Iván’s talents when beyond the culinary, as he was responsible for painting many of the Smurf murals around the town.

We extended our stay by another night to give ourselves more time exploring the surrounding villages and magnificent countryside.

On our first day we drove via Alpandeire and the Cathedral Church of St Antonio de Padua then on to Cueva de la Pileta or Cave of the Pool, in English.

Luck can sometimes be on your side.

We arrived at the caves just before 1 PM,  just in time for the tour, the last before it reopened again at 4 PM.

The guide was excellent and did the tour in both Spanish and English. We had been told this isn’t always the case.

The Pileta Caves were fist discovered in 1905 by a Spanish farmer Jośe Bullón. They were opened to the public in 1924, after a more suitable entrance was discovered by Bullón’s son. The caves contain many paintings, that were first believed to be Moorish but later found to be Neolithic.

Descendants of Jośe still operate small group tours through the cave and they are very careful to protect what they have.

No photos are allowed.

We then drove to Grazalema via Mirador de Benaoján, where we got some great views of the imposing country side.

In this part of Spain the roads have more twists and turns than a US presidential election and there are very few opportunities to stop and take in the view.

Miradors or view points are rare.

In the heart of Grazalema is a statue of two men and a bull with a rope around its neck.

This is very significant in the history of this small white village. The ‘Roped Bull from Grazalema’ is part of a Celtic tradition that goes back 2,500 years. In Grazalema the Feast of the Tied Bulls goes back even further, as it celebrates the ancient sport of hunting wild bulls with ropes.

This was the forerunner to modern day bullfighting.

The next day we headed out again, this time to the south.

Our first village was Genalguacil and like many of the White Villages it has suffered from the financial crisis that has hit these small isolated townships.

Their answer was art.

Every two years Genalguacil holds an art festival. All the work produced over the two weeks of the festival remains the property of the village, so art is everywhere.

Genalguacil has a permanent population of around 522. The festival attracts 8,000 visitors biannually. And, like us, many more come to see this living gallery at other times of the year.

Their investment in art has certainly paid off.

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Gibraltar and Tarifa.

In a bizarre turn of events, as soon as we approached Gibraltar, British weather took hold.

The rock was shrouded in a thick mist, blocking out the sunshine that we had enjoyed for the past few weeks.

How very English.

” I hurts in places where I used to play.” These words from the late, master lyricist, Leonard Cohen, were very apt, after we spent a few hours clambering over ‘The Rock’. Having recently spent a lot of time sitting in a car, getting out and exercising had its down side.

The Barbary Apes or Barbary Macaques (they are not really apes) are everywhere on the rock of Gibraltar and they are a problem.

They are the only wild monkey population on the European continent and descended from North African Macaques. They have been there longer than the British and were most likely introduced by the Moors somewhere between 711 and 1492.

The problem is that people want to feed them, despite the signs that are everywhere. The monkeys know this and can become very aggressive in their search for the food that they believe is intended for them.

I found that the condition of Gibraltar, as a tourist attraction, was very poor. The infrastructure was outdated and the paths were in need of maintenance.

St Michael’s Cave is a network of limestone caves within the rock. Due to the discovery of two Neanderthal skulls, it is believed that the caves could have first been inhabited around 40,000 BC.

With a stage and flood lights in the largest grotto, St Michael’s Cave was in total contrast to the Pileta Caves, and more a disco than a natural wonder.

What was interesting were the Great Siege Tunnels that were built by the British during the American War of Independence. It is the longest siege that has been endured by the British forces, lasting three years and seven months.

These tunnels were dug for the fourteenth and final siege of the war and are a masterpiece of manual labour.

Thirteen men, using sledgehammers and crowbars, aided by gunpowder, took five weeks to dig a tunnel that was 25 meters in length and 0.74 metres square. Subsequent tunnels were dug and the total construction, which was completed in 1783, measured 277 metres in length.

The Moorish Castle which is near the entrance to the tunnels was started around 711, there is no record of when it was completed. The castle played an important part in the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.

Dotted around the township of Gibraltar are token telephone and letter boxes and you can even see the odd Union Jacks fluttering in the breeze.

Just a reminder that they’re British on the Rock.

Our accommodation was at the Rock Hotel which opened in 1932.

Errol Flynn, Alec Guinness, Winston Churchill and Sean Connery have stayed there.

We had a ‘dock view’, which is about all you get from the Gibraltar waterfront.

However if we leant over our balcony and looked to the left we could see North Africa.

Dinner at the Angry Fryer was a curry with rice plus a steak and kidney pie with peas and chips.

You could get any combination of the dishes on offer, all with chips. The food was the old style ‘pub grub’ and certainly not influenced by Jamie Oliver.

Mine was washed down by a pint of John Smiths. The beer was good but the wine was cask, as you would expect in an English pub.

The British theme continued.

On the way to Cádiz we detoured to Tarifa. At 36 degrees latitude it’s on the southern most tip of Spain and continental Europe.

It’s also the wind sport capital of Europe.

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Cádiz.

Driving to Cádiz the scenery and weather changed.

The winds got stronger and coming into Cádiz we experienced a fierce thunderstorm. Visibility was reduced to 30 metres and the windscreen wipers were going at top speed.

It could have had something to do with the fact that we also moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

In Tarifa we saw hundreds of kite surfers and in Cádiz the board riders were out looking to crack the big Atlantic swells.

This coastline is certainly different.

In the evening the sun came out again but the temperature was lower and there was still a strong wind.

Cádiz is the oldest continually inhabited city in Spain, going back as far as 1104 BC, and one of the oldest in Western Europe. Being a port city it played a vital role in developing trade with the Americas. Christopher Columbus sailed from Cádiz on his second and fourth voyages and it was the home port of the Spanish treasure fleet.

The Spanish Constitution, of 1812, was written in Cádiz, so there is a great deal of history in the city. The constitution, although never fully implemented, was one of the most liberal for its time. It was repealed by Ferdinand VII in 1814, reinstated again in 1820 and then rewritten by the Progressives in 1837.

There are buildings and monuments all over the city tracing the history of Cádiz.

The Roman Theatre or Theatrum Balbi was thought to have been built during the 1st century BC and is one of the largest ever built in the Roman Empire.

It was abandoned in the 4th century AD and in the 13th century a fort was built on its ruins.

It was only rediscovered in 1980 while work was being carried out on the Arab fort.

The Cádiz Cathedral, built between 1722 and 1838, is known as the ‘The Cathedral of The Americas’ As it was funded by money that came from the lucrative trade between Spain and America.

It was designed by Vicente Acero, who also built the cathedral in Granada.

Inside the cathedral there is a net beneath the ceiling. This is needed, as there is a lot of fallen masonry caught in the net, between the ceiling and the congregation or in our case the tourists below.

I think some serious money needs to be spent again on the cathedral.

We climbed Levante Tower and got a spectacular panoramic view of the city.

In the Plaza de la Catedral there was an exhibition of six of Henry Moore’s monumental sculptures. They sat beautifully against the backdrop of the baroque/neoclassical styled cathedral.

In the Museum of the Cádiz Constitution there is a 1/250 scale model of Cádiz by Alfonso Ximénez  in fine wood, Ivory and silver. Created between 1777 and 1779. It’s a wonderful insight as to how Cádiz would have looked in the 18th century, its golden age.

On our second night we found Restaurate Sopranis.

We had to wander around Cádiz, for about an hour, waiting for it to open at 9 pm.

It was worth it.

Their opening hours were traditionally Spanish but their food wasn’t. It was Andalusian with a contemporary flair, beautifully presented with delicate flavours.

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Mérida.

We decided to have our ‘Paradore experience’ in Mérida.

Paradores are divided into three different types.

Paradores Civia, are urban hotels in the heart of the city. Paradores Naturia are where you can enjoy nature or the coast and Paradore Esentia are in historic buildings.

We were staying in the latter style.

Our Paradore in Mérida was originally an 18th century convent.

Mérida is full of Roman antiquity, so much that our Parador had them as garden ornaments.

There was so much to see that we decided to stay an extra night.

Mérida is a tale of two cities as we stayed, and loved Mérida in Mexico.

Augusta Emerita, now Mérida, was founded in 25 BC by Augustus to resettle emeritus soldiers who had been discharged from the Roman army.

With theatres, amphitheatres, aqueducts, temples and arches it is certainly a very well equiped retirement village.

The Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida, is one of the largest and most extensive archaeological sites in Spain. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993.

Mérida is sometimes known as the Spanish Rome.

After viewing the ruins you don’t go out for a spaghetti, pizza or gnocchi but rather tortilla, croquettes or jamon.

There is also the 9th century Alcazaba, or Muslim fortification, located very close to the Roman bridge or Puente Romano.

The Alcazaba has seen many battles.

Isabel Católica in 1479, Napoleon in 1811 and finally the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Preceding these, were conflicts involving the Romans, Visigoths and Arabs.

The 762 metres wide Puente Romano is the the world’s longest surviving bridge from ancient times. Just near the bridge is a statue of Romulus and Remus, a reminder of Mérida’s ancient heritage.

When we arrived Mérida was like morgue, even the fountain in the main square was having a siesta.

It was a different story in the evening.

The locals were out and they obviously knew something that we didn’t, as they all had on warmer clothes for the much cooler evenings.

I decided to buy a light weight jumper and found a Pull and Bear outlet.

For the cost of a main course, €15, I got a light weight cotton jumper.

I do like shopping in Spain.

After two full days of visiting the archeological sites of Mérida we gave ourselves a half day off.

An excursion to the Basíca de Santa Eulalia and the Circus Romano in the morning was followed by lunch at the Parador.

I had a siesta, Thea did some photo editing and then at 9pm we headed out into the town again.

It was alive – not with tourists but locals all enjoying the balmy evening air. I didn’t need the jumper I had purchased the night before.

Even at 11pm the plaza near the Parador was still crowded.

The Circo Romano is one of the features of Mérida, if only for its size. It was modelled on the Circus Maximus in Rome and could hold up to 30,000 spectators. It’s over 400 meters in length and 30 meters wide.

The construction of the circus is very symbolic, which is explained in the well organised and informative signage.

“The circus in the Roman world was a building full of symbolism.

The power of the emperor and the cosmos were one and the same, and both were represented in the elements of this building.

One could say the the circus represented a miniature universe.

The arena symbolised the Earth and its shape represented a full year, which the charioteers were to travel seven times atop their chariots.”

It continued:

“Turn your attention to the chariot gates located at the far right of the building.

Each one of them symbolises the twelve months of the year.

The chariot, pulled by horses, symbolises the sun and the charioteer represented the god Apollo.

The seven laps of each race were identified with the seven days of the week, and usually 24 races were carried out, equalling one day.

Four divisions, or teams, existed. Each one was identified by a colour.

The teams symbolised the four seasons of the year.”

Another sign read:

“Now take note of the central barrier which divides the circus arena.

The pool symbolises the ocean and the obelisk, located in the centre, represented the sun at dusk.

At the end of the central barrier, the starting point and goal were located: the ‘dawn starting point’ was where the race began and the ‘secondary goal point’ was where it ended.

Both represented the East and the West.”

It was time to leave Rome and head back to Spain.

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Trujillo, Toledo and Aranjuez.

On our way to Toledo we found a cafe right on the Plaza Major in Trujillo for lunch.

It was hard to find a free table as there were a number of large ones set.

Then a tour bus turned up and we realised why.

We left very quickly.

We wanted to visit Trujillo, as we now had a family connection. Andrea’s maternal surname is Trujillo, so it was important that we made a visit.

It is also has a many Medieval and Renaissance buildings that were either built or renovated by the conquistadors.

We arrived in Toledo late in the afternoon and after checking into our hotel we went for a stroll around the Old Town.

The Almunia de San Miguel Hotel, where we were staying, was in a narrow back street and took some finding.

I think it’s operated by just two people. The manager, who only turns up when there are guests to welcome, and the house maid who serves breakfast and cleans the rooms.

It was centrally located and in an old Moorish house with traditional furnishings.

We were offered a choice of rooms. In fact, going by the number of tables set for breakfast, I think we were the only people there.

This would have to go down as one of the weirdest places we have ever stayed at.

We didn’t see the manager again until our last morning, breakfast wasn’t available on the second day, as the house maid had to take her child to hospital. The Internet was promised but we could never log on.

The manager was very apologetic for the stuff-ups and gave us two nights for the price of one.

The next day we needed to prepare for our African trip, so went looking for a Lavanderias or Laundromat.

The house maid had no idea where there was one so we Googled a chain we had discovered in Granada.

Sure enough we found one but it was a taxi ride away.

Getting a taxi there wasn’t an issue but finding one to get back was.

You can’t seem to be able to hail a taxi off the street in Toledo.

Toledo is built high on a hill, so we resigned ourself to the walk back up that hill. Then we discovered the escalator, six levels of fast moving, leg saving luxury.

The afternoon was spent walking around city.

We spent an hour or so in the Cathedral, a magnificent structure, regarded by many as the best example of Gothic architecture in Spain. It was started in 1226 and finished during the rule of the Catholics Monarchs in 1493.

It was as much an art gallery as a church as there were examples from many artists. Goya, Titian, Rubens, Rafael and more are to be found in the Cathedral Museum.

Their pride and star attraction is The Disrobing of Christ by El Greco. Started in 1577 and completed in 1579, it now adorns the High Altar of the sacristy.

In Plaza San Justo, not far from our hotel, we came across Virtudes Café and Bar.

They had craft beer.

They had two varieties, a larger or rubia and a red beer, or roja, both in bottles and especially brewed for Virtudes.

It was great to have a change from the mass produced beers I had been drinking since leaving Barcelona.

The roja paired very well with the Manchebo cheese and Spanish olives we had for tapas.

After breakfast on our last day in Spain we decided to drive to Aranjuez, which is half way between Toledo and Madrid.

Firstly we found a good lookout, overlooking Toledo, and after getting a few snaps, from the other side of the Tagus River.

Aranjuez is the home to the Royal Summer Palaces. It has been one of the Royal Estates of the Crown of Spain since the times of Philip II in 1560.

All we really wanted was a walk so we strolled around the magnificent gardens of the palace.

Well they would have been magnificent in spring and early summer. The heat had devastated most of the flowers beds and box hedges and the the leaves on the plain trees were starting to turn.

Autumn was on its way.

Aranjuez was yet another diversion, before we headed to Madrid and our 9:40pm flight to Nairobi.

There spring had just started.