Saturday, 3 January 2009
Spain 2008 - Highlights
At the beginning of the year if anyone had suggested that in 2008 I would visit Spain five times I would have considered them mad because I have always said that Spain doesn’t especially appeal to me. I had formed this ignorant opinion on the basis of a few visits to the Spanish Costas and holiday islands which I have to accept now is not at all representative of the second largest country in Europe.
In May we were playing golf on the Costa Blanca and being so close decided to visit Benidorm. Actually I have to confess to having been there before because I went for a fortnight in 1977 at the Don Juan Hotel, somewhere along the Avenida Del Mediterráneo at the back of the Levante beach.
I have to say that Benidorm was nothing like what I was anticipating. It was really rather pleasant and the beaches were immense and spectacular with beautiful clean sand and blue flags flapping proudly in the breeze. If Benidorm was a surprise then the old town was an especially nice place with a blue domed church, reminiscent of those in the Greek islands, and a pedestrianised area that was positively delightful. I remembered this from my visit thirty years ago but not much else I have to say and it was a pleasant surprise and I left with the confirmation that despite the tourists that flock in every summer that this is a very real Spanish town, with Spanish culture and a Spanish history of tuna fishermen and merchant sailors that was actually quite plain to see. I wished that I had grasped that in 1977 because if I had then I am sure that I would have enjoyed it more then.
During this holiday it dawned on me that there must be more to Spain than beaches and condominiums and I decided that it would be nice to try and find the real Spain. A day or two after returning home I found some cheap flights to Galicia and thought that it would be nice to start the search in the north of the country.
Galicia is a popular holiday choice with Spanish people living in the south of the country because they like to holiday in the north to escape the oppressive heat and enjoy Galicia's famous seafood. In August alone, eight million Spaniards travel north to the more temperate climate of Galicia with its green scenery and spectacular beaches. The Galician climate though is changeable and the region is often referred to in Spain as the wet or rainy region. The local geography is also dramatically different from that of the central and southern regions with meadows, hills and mountains and is known affectionately in Iberia as green Spain.
One day we visited the unspoilt fishing village of Corrubedu that has at its heart a port and a backdrop of traditional houses and pavement restaurants that probably hadn’t changed very much in years. Perhaps this was what Benidorm was like before the barbarian hordes from the north invaded fifty years or so ago and spoilt it. In the port there were a collection of small colourful fishing boats, some had been left to rest but on others men were still working gutting and filleting fish accompanied by flocks of interested seagulls.
We chose a seafront restaurant and selected Galician style squid, tortilla, salad and cerveza and enjoyed a traditional meal in the company of the noisiest Spaniards in all of Spain. This place was excellent and we finished our meal and explored the back streets and the traditional houses with their elevated granite grain stores in the gardens, called borreos, with their distinctive Celtic crosses and elaborate carvings. It is an interesting fact that Galicia has a culture, which is both unique and distinct from the rest of Spain, and the core of this difference is centred upon Galicia’s identity as a Celtic, rather than a Latin or Hispanic sub nation. Galicia along with Andalusia, Catalonia and the Basque Country are acknowledged as independent historical nationalities under the Spanish Constitution and as a consequence enjoy special rights and privileges.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important 9th century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James. There was certainly no mistaking that this is a very holy city indeed and the route to the Cathedral was lined with churches, monasteries and seminaries and finally we emerged into the central square, Praza de Obradoiro, where the Cathedral loomed high above in a most spectacular and impressive way. Inside, the Cathedral is nearly a hundred metres long and over twenty metres high and is the largest Romanesque church in Spain as well as being one of the biggest in Europe.
Close by the Cathedral we came across a bar that had a tempting tapas menu on the wall outside. This was what I had been looking for unsuccessfully on my last visit to Spain and we selected a table and began the difficult task of menu selection. We decided upon sardines, calamari, tortilla and salad and some Estrella Galicia beer. The food was reasonably priced and tasted divine and afterwards we left the little restaurant and continued to explore some more of the old city and after a couple of hours I felt confident enough to declare this one of the nicest places that I have ever visited.
In the summer a cheap flight opportunity to Andalusia in November provided another opportunity to continue the quest to discover real Spain. Galicia in the north had been a real eye-opener but this time it was a trip to the South and the part of the peninsula with which, thanks to the travel brochures I suppose, we are all more familiar, the Spain of flamenco, Moorish architecture, sherry, tapas bars and bull fighting.
Instead of staying in the city of Seville, where the hotels seemed to be a little expensive, we had chosen instead to book a cheaper alternative in the nearby town of Carmona that was about thirty kilometres away. We spent a day in the town but we weren’t sure that there would be enough to do to keep us amused all day so we walked very slowly at first towards the eastern gate of the old town, the Puerto de Córdoba which is built on an elevated ridge overlooking the central plain of Andalusia and opens to a glorious view of the surrounding countryside. The warmth of the sun was in contrast to the chilly shade of the street and we stayed a while and admired the view and warmed ourselves up before going back through the gate and climbing steadily towards an old castle at the top of the town that has been converted to a luxury Parador hotel.
We walked around the southern rim of the town and there were more good views over the plain and we sat for a while and soaked up more weak sunshine that was struggling to get up to full late morning temperature. Our route took us now to the Alcázar de la Puerto de Sevilla, which was the western gate protecting the entrance to the old town and then we walked for a little way into the new town and continued our walk to the Roman ruins about a kilometre away.
I have seen Roman ruins advertised before and sometimes they can be quite disappointing so I didn’t have high expectations of those in Carmona but they turned out to be a real surprise. It wasn’t the Colosseum or Pompeii of course but there were extensive excavations and a museum with an informative film about the Romans in Andalusia. It was principally an ancient Roman burial site or necropolis that was discovered in 1881 and there was also the site of what had been a rather large amphitheatre. The best part of all was that there was free admission and we spent well over an hour to look around the site.
It seemed that we had underestimated Carmona and there was a great deal more to do here than I had originally thought.
We walked back to the fortress gate and to a little bodega that we had picked out earlier for lunch. The Abacería L’Antiqua was full to overflowing and heaving with activity and just as we pondering whether or not to stay a table became available and we made ourselves comfortable. The food looked good and the bar was doing brisk trade so we selected some items from the tapas menu and waited for our food to arrive. It came quickly and it was delicious and we enjoyed it so much that we ordered second plates of our favourites and more drinks. The bodega was a vibrant and effervescent place with people of all age groups and whole families enjoying their Sunday lunchtime gathering and we liked the garrulous atmosphere and just being a part of it all.
Less than two weeks after returning from Andalusia in the south of the county we were returning to Spain but this time to Cantabria in the north. The lure of £10 return flights had tempted us to travel again even though it really was far too soon after our last journey but I find it almost impossible to let these bargain flight opportunities pass by.
Although the forecast was poor the weather by contrast was very good and there was a clear blue sky with just a few wispy clouds and from the hotel car park it was possible to see the sea only a few hundred metres away. We drove out of the village on a road that climbed quickly and at the top we were overawed by a sight that we were not prepared for. At a distance of about fifty kilometres we could see the high peaks of the Picos de Europa which were snow capped and glistening white in the mid morning sun. There had been recent heavy snowfall in the mountains behind the narrow coastal strip of the Cantabria coastline and this morning it looked absolutely spectacular. This I simply did not expect and I began to think about all the things about Spain that I don’t know about, which would fill several volumes of an encyclopaedia.
We headed towards the coast road and enjoyed the dramatic contrast of the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the lush green meadows of the hills to the right with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We were heading for the town of Comillas but stopped several times to admire the power of the sea as great waves rolled in and battered the shore line. I had always thought of Spain as a Mediterranean country but closer inspection of the map shows that a third of the Country’s coastline is along the much more dramatic Atlantic Ocean.
In the summer Comillas is a busy seaside town but it is a lot quieter in December and there was plenty of room in the car park to park the car. We walked across the pristine blue flag beach washed scrupulously clean by the strong tides and then towards the little harbour with a handful of little fishing boats sheltering behind the strong granite walls. The tide was coming in quickly and as we watched the harbour began to fill with water and the little boats sprang into life as the sea lifted them off of the mud.
We left the town and in a very short time we were in the fishing town of San Vincente De La Barquera, which was busier than Comillas. There was an interesting castle and an old town that stretched from the headland to the church of Santa María de los Ángeles and which enjoyed magnificent views over a busy river estuary to the mountains beyond. This place was rather like Cornwall or South Wales with a lively Atlantic Ocean, a working fishing port and an intense blue sea fringed by verdant green fields. We were reluctant to leave but there were still thinks to see and we hadn’t visited the town of Santillana Del Mar yet, which is supposed to be one of the prettiest in Spain. When we arrived it turned out to be a real treasure. It was an unspoilt medieval town with a famous old church and cobbled piazzas and historic old buildings at every twist and turn in the streets.
Close by the town was the Altimira museum because Cantabria it turns out is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me). The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Well, you learn something new every day it seems!
My five visits to Spain this year now means that I have visited the country more than any other in Europe, nineteen times compared with sixteen to Greece, ten to France and nine to Italy. My next trip is in March when I will be visiting Madrid and the central region of Castile.