The roads were clear and we made uninterrupted progress around the M40 ring road and then turned north towards our first destination of Manzanares El Real and as we began to steadily climb into the mountains towards the Regional Park Cuenca Alta de Manzanares the cloud began to thin and fairly soon we were through it and the sky was clear and the temperature leapt several degrees to something closer to what we were expecting. We climbed to one thousand three hundred metres and the mountain tops ahead and to the east had a dusting of snow, the harbinger of the winter which can see several metres fall here with villages and towns regularly being cut off.
Eventually we arrived in Manzanares and parked in a dusty car park directly below the huge medieval castle sat on an outcrop of rock that we had driven here to see. But it was lunchtime now and time for a drink so before tackling the steps to the fortress we walked into town and found a pavement bar with outside tables in the warm sunshine and we stopped for a while to enjoy the winter sun. The last trip away was to Marrakech in Morocco where it was almost impossible to buy a beer because of the strict Muslim rules on alcohol so it was good to be back in Spain where there are no such problems and I enjoyed a cool refreshing cerveza!
After the break we walked through the languid square where little groups of men in flat caps and berets were congregating and debating the issues of the day and women were shopping in the small stores around the perimeter. They don’t get many English tourists here, especially in November, so I think one or two of them were surprised to see us as they went about their daily routine.
We found the entrance to the castle and paid our €4 fee (€2 for Christine because she is of a certain age) and then made our way inside through the main gate. The castle has been restored of course, most recently by the Comunidad de Madrid in the 1970s, because only a few years ago it wasn’t in very good shape at all and I guessed that what we were seeing was what Belmonte castle will look like when it too has been restored. I mention this because last year we were in Belmonte in Castilla La-Mancha where some scenes from the film El Cid were shot but the castle was closed at the time and there were some claims here in Manzanares that this too was a location for some of the filming.
Inside the main building we followed a route through a succession of restored rooms with displays of armour and medieval bric-a-brac of dubious originality and then out onto the battlements and turrets at the very top of the building. To the north there were the snowy peaks of the mountains and to the south a stunning view over the Embalse de Santillana which is a recent addition to the landscape of course so wouldn’t have been there in the middle-ages for the occupants of the castle to enjoy at that time. Santillana reservoir, also known as the reservoir of Manzanares el Real, has an area of over a thousand hectares when full, is thirty kilometres long and is a stunning compliment to the natural landscape. The first dam was built in 1907 but this was replaced by a new one in 1969 which at forty metres high doubled the storage capacity of the reservoir.
When we had finished with the castle we left Manzanares and headed for our next stop on the itinerary, the Royal Palace and Monastery at El Escorial, a journey of about twenty kilometres. It was about now that we began to regret the BMW upgrade because this turned out to be a dubious benefit on account of the fact that it was so darned uncomfortable. The bucket seats were narrow, there was little leg or head room and getting in and out was a serious challenge. The suspension was as hard as iron and the driving position was cramped and difficult. In the back the three girls were squashed together because this car is really not designed for five people and we all agreed that we wished we had the Volkswagen. I know it sounds ungrateful but next time I will specify no upgrade to a BMW thank you very much!