Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Castile - Day 3, Belmonte

It was another excellent morning and behind the dark shutters the early morning sun was waiting to pounce as soon as they were opened. The sky was clear and it was blissful, serene and tranquil with absolute silence but for the merry chirruping of the house martins nesting in the garden and beginning their days work.

The breakfast room was busier this morning as a few families had checked in the previous afternoon so while we waited to use the toasting machine I had a look around the room and the pictures on the wall. At the far end there were photographs of the actor Charlton Heston in the film El Cid and the man on duty behind the bar tried to explain to me in a combination of Spanish and English (mostly Spanish) that some of the movie was filmed right here in Belmonte at the fifteenth century castle that overlooks the town. That was something interesting that I didn’t know and good news too because today we planned a leisurely exploration of the town and a visit to the fortress and after breakfast we set out to do just that.

Although the sun was shining it was quite cool in the shade so we kept to the sunny side of the street and made for the castle. On the way we stopped to ask directions and a lady showed us the route but explained in sign language that it wasn’t open at the moment. This didn’t come as a complete surprise I have to say because there was an enormous crane sticking out of the top of it and even from a distance it was obvious that the builders were in. Despite this it looked well worth an external visit anyway so we left by a town gate and began to walk up an unmade path towards the castle. The walk involved quite an arduous climb, especially as I insisted on trying to reach the highest point for the best view and this meant negotiating an almost vertical ascent up a loose shale path that crumbled away under our feet at every step.

But we were rewarded with great views over the town and from here we could clearly see its military footprint because Belmonte is a fortified town at the foot of the magnificently sturdy castle which was part of the ring of fortifications that marked the front line in the medieval power struggle between the Spanish Christians and the African Moors. On the way back down to the castle we crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren filmed the closing scenes of El Cid.

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill. He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion. He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid. It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died. Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia. It’s a good story but the film takes a few historical liberties so it’s best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The castle is a declared national monument and it was closed for some serious renovation and no one seems to know with any degree of certainty when it will open again. It was a shame not to be able to visit but we walked around the outside underneath its imposing towers and told ourselves it was a good excuse to come back sometime. Next to the castle were a row of three whitewashed windmills but this was spoilt somewhat by a new hotel that was almost finished and looked embarrassingly out of place. From here there were uninterrupted views over the Meseta, the massive central plateau of Spain laid out like a patchwork quilt in front of us. It was obvious why they built the castle her because no one was going to sneak up on them, that’s for sure!

From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where old ladies in black dresses sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing important matters of state. In the centre of town there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for years, a florist and a photographer. What we really wanted was a bar with outside tables but there were none and I formed the impression that the town was really only just waking up to spring and after a longer than normal winter wasn’t yet quite certain enough that it was here to have the confidence to put the tables and chairs outside.

After a visit to a pharmacy to purchase sticking plaster for blisters (picked up on my climb to the top of the shale path, so entirely my fault) we returned to the hotel we had visited last evening and had a drink and another plate of olives. Afterwards we walked to the other side of the town to some more windmills, made a visit to the collegiate church which was absurdly overpriced at €2 each and took about ten minutes to look around (and that was dawdling) and that was it and after only three hours that was Belmonte visited, seen and finished.

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