Castles in Spain

10. Feb, 2018

Tordesillas lies in the centre of Castilla y Leon, the province which stretches in a vast plain from the Cordillera range in the north to the Sierra de Gredos in the south.  That is a trip of over 200 miles with scarcely a hill.  At times it was reminiscent of the Canadian prairies; a small hillock would provide an endless view of wheat fields, large patches of bare golden soil, the odd vineyard and an amazing huge sky: big sky country.  In the far distance, in every direction, were the snow-capped peaks of the Sierras.  On the road from Tordesillas to Salamanca we could see them to the south and west.  On the road from Tordesillas to Leon we could see them to the north.  And through the centre of this vast plain runs the river Duero, which is of course the Spanish name for the Douro, which we had explored in Portugal.
 
We arrived at Camping El Astral in hot sunshine and blue skies, such a contrast to the rains on the northern coast.  We thought at first it was snowing, in spite of the heat.  In fact the campsite was shaded by white poplars, which were shedding their fluffy seeds in a blizzard of white.  This was very attractive for about 45 seconds, until we realised that the fluff was invading everywhere!  An hour after putting up the awning there was a drift of them at the far end, covering my shoes and a pile of towels.  It was impossible to sweep them away as they just drifted up into the air and fell down again.  We learned to live with it; we had to.  Apart from that it was a delightful campsite, excellent facilities, just a short walk from town.
 
Tordesillas sits on a bluff on the banks of the river, looking, but for the absence of hills behind it, just like a Tuscan village. It is a charming little town of narrow streets, a central square, two grand churches and a huge convent, which was formerly a royal palace.  The palace had been built in 1350 but was converted into a convent by Pedro the Cruel. It was here that Juana the Mad (queen of Castile, daughter of Isabel) locked herself away for 46 years following the death of her husband Philip the Fair in 1506.  John the Paunch and Lesley the Long-Suffering visited the convent and had a very interesting guided tour given by Magdalina the Soft Spoken, in spite of the accompanying crowd of Spanish visitors who included Isabella the Shrieker, Carmen the Screecher, Pablo the Loud and the young Fernando the Whiner.  Much of the old palace is in evidence, including a lot of Moorish archways and tile work.  The ceiling of the choir in the chapel was particularly grand, intricately patterned in gold leaf, artesanado style.
The town's other claim to fame is the treaty signed here in 1494 by the kings of Spain and Portugal, agreeing a division for discoveries in the New World.  The "House of the Treaty" is preserved as a museum with displays of old maps.
 
Some 20 miles to the east of Tordesillas is Valladolid. It was here that Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile married in 1469. Isabel became queen of Castile in 1474 and Fernando became king of Aragon in 1479 paving the way for a united Spain and the expulsion of the Moors.  Valladolid was made capital of Spain, a University was founded and a new style of architecture created, Isabelline. This is a mixture of flamboyant Gothic and Moorish and seems to involve intricate carvings on every possible surface.  The Collegio de San Gregorio is the best example and the south door, which we were able to see, was most impressive.  Unfortunately the main façade at the front of the building was covered in scaffolding.  How many famous buildings have we visited which have been hidden under scaffolding!
 
Columbus died in Valladolid in 1506, Cervantes in 1616 (on the same day that Shakespeare died).  
 
There are 2,000 castles in Spain and most of these are in the old kingdom of Castile. Originally built by both Moors and Christians, their building was banned by Fernando and Isabel at the end of the 15th century.  Many fell into disrepair or disappeared, many were converted into the Spanish equivalent of the English Stately Home.  With so much choice, and knowing that we could only get a taster in the time available, we chose two, La Mota at Medino del Campo and Castillo de Coca at Coca.  Both had been owned by the Fonseca family, the former now owned by the state, the latter by the Forestry Commission as a college. 
 
La Mota is a huge edifice, surrounded, as the name implies, by a deep but empty moat.  It was built in 1440 on the site of an earlier fortification, Moorish or possible Roman, and has a true castle-like appearance. Transferred to the Crown in 1475, it was occupied at one time or another by Isabel (who died nearby), her daughter Juana the Mad and Cesare Borja who was imprisoned here from 1506 to 1508.  Only the central courtyard is open to the public:  from the signs and photographs it would appear that the rest of the building is used for state occasions.
 
Coca, whilst still a fortified building, had a more palace-like feel. Within the central courtyard has been built an accommodation block for the forestry students, in keeping with the overall style of the place. The rooms in the walls and turrets are all open to the public, steep dark staircases leading to the roof or to a dead end below, with odd shaped rooms between. It was very easy to get lost.  The village of Coca is very old, with the remains of a wall and huge gateway.   

On another day we visited Salamanca, 80 miles to the southwest.  A long journey for a day trip, but well worth it.  Originally an Iberian settlement, it was occupied by the Romans, captured by Hannibal, the Visigoths, the Moors and finally by Castile.  Remnants of most of these remain, but it is best known for its 13th century university and 16th century architecture, all made out of the local warm golden sandstone.  The city has a very relaxed and cultured atmosphere.  
 
Plaza Mayor, said to be the most magnificent main square in Spain, was the start of our tour. We sat with a coffee and a pastry watching the world walk by.  The square was filled with stalls for the annual book fair, which made it more interesting but harder to photograph.  Off the square run narrow side streets lined with old buildings, almost every one a gem.  On one street corner was the Casa de las Muertes, so called for the stone skulls which propped up the window sills. On another was the Casa de las Conchas, whose golden stone walls were covered with carved scallop shells.  This was the public library, with a lovely colonnaded patio inside.

Then there were the university buildings, clustered around Patio de las Escuelas, all 15th and 16th century decorated buildings.  We were a little concerned at first at some of the red paint graffiti on the walls, until we read that in days of old students had to kill a bull in a bullfight as part of their "graduation", and they would scrawl their names on the walls in bull's blood!
 
Close to the university are the two cathedrals. The new, built between 1500 and 1700, shares a wall with the old one, built in the 12th century, and the two match each other well. There was a wedding taking place in the old one, and it must have been very disconcerting for the bride to have tourists wandering around as she made her vows. It did make it very difficult to get a close look at the altar, which is a magnificent piece consisting of 53 paintings by Nicolas of Florence in 1445. In some of the chapels were more lovely old paintings and frescos and tombs, including a painting claimed to be the oldest painting by a named artist in the world, signed by Anton Sanchez de Segovia in 1262.
 
Behind the cathedral is the Casa Lis, a Modernista building which is now an Art Nouveau and Art Deco museum.  It was full of treasures such as a Faberge egg, Lalique glass and jewellery, and even toys from the 1920's, including original Kewpie dolls.  A complete contrast to the rest of Salamanca, and we spent an interesting couple of hours there.
  
In all we had a very enjoyable week in Tordesillas.  It was a good site, there was  lots to see and do and most importantly we had excellent weather.  It may sound as if we spent the whole time sightseeing, but in fact we spent a lot of time just sitting outside the caravan, soaking up the sun and reading.  As a matter of fact, disaster almost struck, as we were in danger of running out of books. We have topped up our "library" whenever we could, by swapping with other travellers, or visiting charity shops, which are very few and far between.  Many campsites have a shelf or two of books (not always in English, of course) where campers can take a book as long as they supply another one in exchange, and in some sites kind people have left books or magazines in a public place for others to help themselves.  There had been nothing like that for weeks and we were reduced to reading cereal packets.  However in Salamanca we found a bookshop selling English paperbacks, albeit at an extortionate price.  To get our money's worth we bought two weighty classics to keep us going, as well as two lighter novels!  Hopefully they will last us until we get home.
 
 It was sad to move on, but the weather reports for the north coast were promising, and we do want to see the Picos de Europa before we sail home next week.  So we decided to return to the north coast.

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