Monday, 27 April 2009

Castile - Day 1, Chinchón

Spain is currently the world’s second largest tourist destination after France, with the population of forty-five million being increased every year by as many as sixty million foreign visitors, 80% of whom make straight to the excellent beaches along the coasts. But I am keeping away from the tourist hot spots and in the continuing search for real Spain have now visited Galicia and Cantabria in the north and old Moorish Andalusia in the south and this time, still staying well away from the crowds and the busy Costas had plans to visit inland Spain, to Castile and the provincial towns and cities around the capital of Madrid.

Already in the space of less than a year I have discovered that Spain is a country of immense diversity. In respect of cultural development pre-revisionist historians traditionally identified two Spain’s, with the conventional view that the peninsula was an ideological battleground between the liberal heirs of the Enlightenment and the Republic and those who sought to preserve the Catholic ethos of traditional Spain and the Monarchy. This was a battleground that reached its bitter conclusion in the civil war in the 1930s.

Geographically Spain is quite magnificent with green forests in the rainy north, mountains and vast plains in the central regions and deserts in the extreme south east. With an area of just over five hundred thousand square kilometers Spain is the second largest country in Western Europe after France and with an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres it is the second highest country in Europe after Switzerland.

Spain is also a country of different people and the description ‘Spaniard’ is just a convenient way of bundling them all together. Richard Ford was an English traveler in Spain in the nineteenth century and in his ‘Handbook for Travelers in Spain’, published in 1845, acknowledged now as one of the very first travel guides, was one of the first to identify that ‘Spain is a bundle of local units tied together by a rope of sand’, and Gerald Breenan in ‘The Spanish Labyrinth’ similarly observed ‘In what we may call its normal condition Spain is a collection of small, mutually hostile or indifferent republics held together in a loose federation’.

It was an early morning Ryanair flight and in razor sharp clear skies the plane crossed the Atlantic Spanish coast somewhere close to the city of Santander and below us we recognised the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa that we had visited last December, which were snow capped and glistening brightly in the mid morning sun. And then we crossed the massive northern mountainous regions of northern Spain. It was brown and rocky with huge pine forests and blue shimmering lakes, long straight roads snaking between towns and villages and from above it was possible to begin to appreciate the immense size of the country.

Closer to Madrid the predominant browns gave way to vibrant greens and then into a mosaic of colours and contrasts as the aircraft made its final descent and landed at the airport. It was a bit disorganised but the customs were brilliant and the United Kingdom immigrations control could learn a thing or two about getting passengers through an airport quickly from these guys. Then collecting the car was gloriously simple as well and within forty minutes we were heading out of the city on the A3 motorway and on our way to the region of Castilla-La Mancha and our first destination, the town of Chinchón, about fifty kilometres south of Madrid.

Not far out of the city the scenery became very attractive with acres of olive trees and stumpy vines slumbering in the fields and waiting for the right conditions to stimulate spring growth. In the trees and on top of pylons there were stork nests and in the sky buzzards hung above us on the thermals looking for lunch in the fields below.

We arrived in Chinchón at about half past one and ignoring the edge of town tourist car parks steered the car towards the Plaza Mayor at the very centre of the town. Parking has rarely been easier and there was a perfect spot right in the Plaza and I was sure it wouldn’t be this easy in a few weeks time. There was a glorious blue sky and big sun and it was hot enough to change into summer holiday linens although this did take some of the locals by surprise as they were still wrapped up in woollies and coats.

It was a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that today was a car park but at other times is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by houses of two and three floors with running balconies and shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor. We spent a few minutes soaking up the atmosphere and then we compared menu prices in the bars and selected the cheapest on the sunny side of the square and settled down for lunch. We enjoyed salad, calamari and tortilla and after a couple of glasses of Spanish beer set off to explore some of the tiny streets running off of the square.

We walked first through narrow streets of whitewashed houses to the top of the town and to a castle with excellent views over the houses and the surrounding villages and countryside but the castle was in a state of disrepair and closed so we left and after calling in at the Parador hotel to see how wealthy people spend their holidays we walked to the other side of town and climbed again this time to the church which had equally good views over the tiled roofs of the houses which in some way reminded me of Tuscany.

1 comment:

Sandra said...

That was really interesting Andrew. The `real` Spain is what I would love to see. :o)

Love Sandra x