Day trips - don't tell Cid
As John said in the previous episode, our main aim here in Alcossebre has been to relax. After almost a year during which we have stayed in 48 campsites in 14 countries, not counting 8 sites in England, we feel we've done more than enough sightseeing,
and need time to recharge our batteries. However, we occasionally want a change of scene, so we’ve made a few forays into the surrounding area. To be honest, it’s not the most interesting of the Costas. The stretch south of Valencia,
which we visited four years ago, has a lot more to see. But wherever you go in Spain there’s sure to be some historic old town or castle, and so we’ve had some enjoyable trips. Two names in particular seem to crop up regularly hereabouts,
both famous warriors – El Cid and Hannibal (the chap who crossed the Alps with elephants, not the chap who enjoyed eating human liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti).
About 20 miles north of here is the popular holiday resort of Peniscola. The first thing we have to point out here is the correct pronunciation (stop sniggering at the back!) In Spanish there is a squiggle over the n, which is pronounced ny; and the stress is on the second syllable – Penyiscola. Repeat after me, class! In fact the name is simply a corruption of "peninsula", because the original town and castle were built on a rocky headland joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. It’s a very ancient town, having been settled by Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians (Hannibal conquered the town) and Romans. The castle was built by the Knights Templar in the thirteenth century, and from 1415 was the home of the Antipope Benedict Xlll. His real name was Pedro de Luna and he flourished, briefly, during the strange period known as the Great Western Schism when the papacy decamped to Avignon and various factions put forward their own candidates for the office. But Benedict fell out of favour and ended his days in Peniscola Castle. Even his papal name was cancelled, and later given to another pope in the seventeenth century. But the Peniscolans are very proud of their Papa Luna, as they call him, judging by the number of hotels, bars and restaurants named after him!
Those of you old enough to remember the epic film of El Cid, made in 1960 and starring Charlton Heston, will have seen Peniscola Castle in a battle scene filmed on the beach, in which the castle is meant to represent Valencia. It certainly couldn’t have been filmed there a few years later, when Peniscola rapidly developed as a holiday resort and high-rise hotels and apartment blocks mushroomed along the seafront. But it’s still pleasant to wander the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, which is full of little shops and restaurants, and the newer part with its long promenade and lovely beach.
About the same distance south of Alcossebre are another couple of attractive resorts, Oropesa and Benecassim, very popular with the Snowbirds as there are several large campsites here. They both have good beaches, again lined with high-rise holiday accommodation, but there’s not much in the way of character. However they are very pleasant places to while away an hour or so, sitting in a beach-front café enjoying the sun.
As so often in Spain, travel a few miles inland and the scene is very different. One day we drove up to the little Chapel of Santa Lucia, perched high on a hill overlooking Alcossebre. The views were wonderful, not only of the coast but also of the hinterland with its patchwork of orange groves and vegetable fields – at the moment mostly artichokes. The further inland you go, the more rugged and arid it becomes. This area is known as the Maestrat, and in the Middle Ages was ruled by the Knights Templar and the Knights of Montesa, who fortified the scattered villages against the Moors. It’s a sparsely-populated mountainous region - the highest peak is over 6,000 feet – where olives and almonds are grown in drystone walled terraces dating back to the Moorish occupation. But there are much older relics of settlement, in the form of 10,000-year-old rock paintings showing scenes of men hunting with spears and bows and arrows.
At the heart of the Maestrat is Morella, one of those spectacular Spanish hill-towns topped by a castle. Actually, for “hill” read “mountain”, as the town is situated at a height of 3,294 feet, barely 300 feet less than the height of Snowdon! When the town first comes into view it’s so extraordinary it’s hard to believe it’s real. It looks like some computer-generated image from a fantasy film. It’s surrounded by 2.5 km of 14th century walls, complete with towers and gateways, and inside them the town ascends in tiers to a castle perched on top of a rocky crag. El Cid fought a battle here too, and rebuilt the castle, which was still being used as late as the 19thcentury, in the Carlist wars (don’t ask – Spanish history is very complicated!)
We had to leave the car outside the walls and slog our way up the steep, narrow streets lined with tall houses, with arcaded ground floors and balconies above. Until recently the population had been decreasing rapidly but the town is making something of a comeback as a tourist destination and gastronomic centre. Beneath the arcades are numerous shops selling the local specialities, cheeses, honey, truffles and cured meats and sausages of various kinds. There are some very smart restaurants too, and when we looked at the menus the prices were surprisingly reasonable. We didn’t indulge – being thrifty souls we’d brought our own sandwiches. (We didn’t live in Yorkshire for years without its values rubbing off on us!) The town was full of tourists, but they were all Spanish, and in the shops nobody spoke English. We had a hilarious time tasting, discussing and finally buying various products in a mixture of pidgin Spanish and pantomime. It was clear they get few foreign visitors, which is a shame because it’s an amazing place and deserves to be more widely known.
Below the castle is the Basilica de Santa Maria la Mayor, an impressive Gothic church with a 14th century carved portal, the Apostle Doorway, and next to it the Virgins Doorway. Inside there’s an unusual raised choir and an elaborate gilded altarpiece.
We didn’t make it up to the castle itself- we’ve both been having knee problems, a sign of old age I suppose – but there were good views of it from a square where there was a small market. In the sky above the castle there was a sinister sight - a number of griffon vultures, silently circling, possibly waiting for some old crumblies like us to drop dead with the effort of the steep climb.
In complete contrast to the mountainous Maestrat is the Ebro Delta, a vast, swampy stretch of alluvial deposits brought down from the mountains by Spain’s longest river, the Ebro. The Delta lies midway between Valencia and Barcelona, not far inside the Catalan border. It’s a strange landscape of marshes, salt pans and rice fields, with isolated houses barely six inches above the level of the surrounding wetlands. 320 square kilometres has been designated a nature reserve, being a valuable habitat for all kinds of waterfowl and migratory birds, some of them quite rare.
It’s one of only five places in Europe where flamingos live and breed all year round, another being the Camargue. In fact it looks a lot like the Camargue, even down to the whitewashed cottages thatched with reeds. There are numerous hides for birdwatchers and at one, on a lake called La Tancada, we saw a huge flock of flamingos. Most of them looked bent over, as if they were feeding, but when we looked through our binoculars we saw they were actually asleep, with their long necks curled up on their backs. Just a few were stalking about, on the lookout for danger perhaps. There were hundreds of ducks of various sorts too, but not being bird experts the only ones we could identify were pochards.
We crossed the Ebro which divides the delta into two halves. The northern part is slightly more built-up – Deltebre is quite a large town – and we saw no more flamingos, but the rice fields were full of egrets and herons. In the UK herons are quite a shy bird but here they were common, standing like sentinels in the water. Also common, unfortunately, were mosquitoes, even in late November! We were forced to stay in the car with the windows closed to eat our picnic, because when we set foot outside we were surrounded with the annoying creatures. We drove on as far as Ruimar, on the edge of the sea. There was a long, deserted beach backed by dunes, a couple of beach bars, and an awful lot of sand blown across the road and piling up like a snowdrift. In summer it’s a popular area for surfers. On the whole an interesting area, but not somewhere I’d want to spend a lot of time in – too flat and muddy, not to mention too mozzy-prone!
Our final outing, just a couple of days ago, was to Sagunto, on the way to Valencia. Like so many Spanish towns it has an ancient and varied history, having been settled by Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors. Its original name was Arse – another town named after an embarrassing body part! But the Romans called it Saguntum, and it’s famous in Roman history as the town that fell to Hannibal in 218 BC after a long siege, signalling the beginning of the Second Punic War. It was rebuilt five years later by Scipio Africanus and became an important Roman town. According to our guide book there were remains of the ancient Acropolis and a Roman theatre on a hilltop where a castle was later built. Sagunto nowadays is an unattractive industrial town, and although the rocky hill with its castle was clearly visible, the way to get to it wasn’t. It didn’t help that it was market day and the streets we wanted to go up were closed! However we finally found somewhere to park and toiled up the hill, through the narrow streets of the Juderia, or old Jewish quarter. The ruins, when we found them, were something of a letdown. The Roman theatre, which was built into the side of the hill, has been adapted for modern use, with a modern rebuilt stage and seating. The Roman original is still there but covered by the new building. It’s good to see an ancient theatre still in use, but difficult to get an impression of what it looked like in Roman times. We climbed further and entered the castle. The walls are extensive, and built on Roman and Moorish foundations, but much enlarged in Napoleonic times. Inside was a jumble of stones, vaguely labelled “Forum” and “Temple” but with no further information, and everything was in a very dilapidated state. The castle itself had no signs or labels of any sort to indicate what various areas were used for or when they were built. There was a small and not very interesting museum with a collection of fragmentary Roman inscriptions. We’ve seen some wonderful Roman sites in Spain so it was disappointing that this one was so uncared for. On the plus side, the views from the ramparts were spectacular, though the wind was very strong and cold. So we made our way back down to the town and drove home. I later discovered that Sagunto was the birthplace of Rodrigo, the composer of the Concierto d’Aranjuez, but we didn’t see any statue or sign of this anywhere, either!
On our way back we called in at a vast shopping mall, reminiscent of Meadowhall. There was a large C and A, and I bought a couple of nice sweaters (after a year’s travelling with only a limited selection of clothes, I’m beginning to look a bit shabby!) As I think I’ve mentioned before, it puzzles me that shops like C and A, Woolworth’s, Bata and Etam, which have vanished from the UK’s high streets, are still thriving in the rest of Europe.
We’re nearing the end of our travels now and in two days will leave Alcossebre and begin the trek home. Our next destination will be Zaragoza, then we’ll cross into France and stay near St Jean de Luz, in a campsite we used on our way to Spain back in January. Hopefully we’ll be able to do one more blog before we get back to England.