Western Spain: A tale of Three Cities

5. Oct, 2018

Sitting in the caravan thinking about this blog it occurred to me that this episode would be a trip back in time. Salamanca, famous for its 12th century old cathedral, 15th century new cathedral and 18th century Plaza Mayor (said to be the finest in Spain); Caceres, famous for its old town, walled by the Moors and later developed by the Catholic Monarchs:  and Merida, a little known city with some of the best Roman remains in Europe.  Of course Salamanca has its Roman bridge, Caceres its 15th Century palaces, Merida its Moorish Alcazaba and ultra modern Museum of Roman Art, but the overall feel of the cities is Isabelline, Moorish and Roman.

From Burgos we travelled west across the north of the Spanish Meseta, the vast plain which makes up most of Castile.  Our destination was Salamanca, a city we had visited on our first trip in 2009 and were keen to visit again.  We had hoped to stay on a small site I had discovered on the internet before we set off, but because we could get no internet in Burgos and it does not appear in any of the guides I could not check its address, so we headed for the site with the least bad review, Camping Regio, set behind the Hotel Regio about five miles from the city. Frankly, I cannot see why it should have had poor reviews.  It was a spacious site with good facilities.  It even had an undercover car wash facility, so I was able to remove some of the French grime from the car.

Next morning we took the bus into Salamanca, which was an experience in itself.  The service was once an hour starting from the hotel car park and it arrived five minutes late.  There were three chatty men on board already, and leaving the car park, instead of turning left towards town it turned right.  A mile up the road it U turned into a petrol station and stopped.  The three gave the driver a cheery goodbye, got off and disappeared into the back of the garage.  The driver then set off towards town, happy to have done his mates a favour.  Now we had been led to believe that the bus went straight into town.  The campsite receptionist had given us a map with a straight line for the bus route.  What she had not explained was that the hotel was a few miles off the map, and before joining the map the bus would make a huge detour round a large housing estate.  At the very far end of the estate one man got on, but the driver got off.  It was time for his fag break.  We eventually set off again with us two and one other passenger, round the estate again and back to the main road, where there were several people waiting at the stop.  During the course of the remaining couple of miles we picked up plenty of passengers and by the time we got to town it was packed.

Our first port of call was the Plaza Mayor.  Last time we were here it had been filled with a second hand book fair so we were hoping for a better view of it.  No chance.  This time it was the end of term and they were in the course of erecting a stage for the University light show and gig.  It was not warm enough to sit outside with a coffee yet so we sat in a window seat watching the world go by and trying to make sense of a Spanish newspaper.

Next stop would be the Casa de las Conchas, the House of Shells, so called because of the 400 shell shaped carvings attached to the walls.  It is now the public library, so we had to pop in to have a look.  It was just like a modern English library.   Computers and internet access, scruffy looking box files full of periodicals, shelves of books in an apparent random order.  But it did have a fine interior portico with an exhibition of candid (but in reality carefully posed) photographs of street scenes in Salamanca.

Then it was onwards to the Cathedrals.  Great thanks are due to the church authorities, who, when they outgrew the original cathedral, decided to build a new bigger one alongside the old one, rather than demolishing or extending.  The result is a double helping of fine architecture, one 12th century and the other 16th to 18th centuries.  The contrast too is fascinating.  The rounded and sombre Romanesque arches in the old cathedral, with medieval wall paintings and intricate carvings, compare dramatically with the soaring ceilings of the later church.  

The old cathedral has an interesting cloister, restored after partial collapse during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, with some unusual chapels off it.  One was dedicated to the Mozarabic mass, the mass used in Spain before the Catholic Church codified its prayer book.  Another was the examination room for students who wanted to gain a degree at the University of Salamanca, one of Spain's oldest universities.  Apparently a student would be placed in this chapel, alongside the grave of the University’s founder, and be given a sealed book, which was ceremonially opened in front of him.  He (for it was always a he) then had 24 hours isolated in this chapel to study the book.  Food was passed to him through a grill.  After 24 hours the college dignitaries came in and the student had to give a one hour dissertation on the book, followed by a question and answer session and debate.  The dignitaries then discussed amongst themselves whether to award a degree. How different things are today!

Near the cathedral we spotted a building with a notice indicating it was the Civil War archive with an exhibition on the civil war and in particular the role of the Masons.  It was the belief of Franco and his fellow Falangist rebels that Spain was suffering from an attack planned by Jews, Communists and Masons.  It seems a bit odd to us today, who tend to think of Masons as part of the Establishment rather than anti Establishment.  However a visit to this was important for my research for my U3A talk due in March.  Then to appease Lesley we had a quick look round the fabulous Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Deco, before lunching in a small bar which was very popular with students celebrating the end of term.

While we were staying in Salamanca the weather changed dramatically.  The clouds, mist and rain had disappeared, the sun was out and the sky was blue.  By the time we passed back through the Plaza Mayor on the way back to the bus people were lunching outdoors.  The downside of the clear skies of course is very cold nights, and when we got up early next morning to pack up and drive on to Caceres it was chip the ice off the windscreen time again.

The journey south was interesting, climbing over the Sierra de Gredos, where there was a bit of snow visible on the heights, and descending to the Tajo valley, (Tagus in Portugal) where the scattered pines were replaced by holm oaks and the occasional olive grove and more numerous storks.  The Caceres site was just as we left it three years ago.  In fact I think we were even on the same pitch, with its little private hut containing toilet shower and washbasin.  This would be ideal in good weather but the huts are unheated and the hot water not too reliable.  Nevertheless clean and convenient.  Lesley took the opportunity of some good weather to change the beds and do a couple of machine washes.

On Sunday we went into town to see some of the historic bits we had not seen on our last visit.  We climbed several towers, descended into basement reservoirs (Moorish Aljibe) and toured the museum.  We visited the cathedral, but on the advice of the verger did not climb the bell tower as the bells were about to perform their noon tintinnabulation.   There were a couple of lads on the steps of a nearby palacio, one with a guitar, taking it in turn to wail a dreadful noise.  This was, allegedly, Flamenco, so I dropped a euro into their basket.  I am quite happy to contribute when someone is trying to earn a penny.  What gets my goat is the beggars who pester pester pester and follow me around gabbling in a fast shrieking language which may or may not be Spanish.  Nearby we were amazed to find the worlds largest plasticene  Nativity scene.  There were a number of amusing anomalies, such as the pigs head and side of bacon on sale in the market, and some rather politically incorrect images, such as the big red lips on one of the magi.

Monday was a dull start, but it brightened up after lunch so we went for a walk round the lake at Los Barruecos, a nearby national park famed for its storks’ nests.  Being December there were not as many storks as on our last visit, but they were beginning to arrive back from wherever they go off to and were reclaiming their nests.  In spite of the fact that we had followed the marked pathway, we ended up close to the car park but on the wrong side of a locked gate with no way to get round, through or over it.  This entailed a detour through some rather rough scrub land then a squeeze through a barbed wire fence to get back to the car.  We were able to see the strange construction of an old aeroplane and old cars which form the storks’ nest tower, the emblem of our last long blog.

On Tuesday we set off early for a day trip to Merida.  Strangely this old city merits only one star in the Michelin Green Guide, but we had heard a lot about its Roman remains and felt we just had to see it.  What a jaw dropping surprise.  We have been to many Roman places in our travels, and perhaps we have seen a better amphitheatre, a better theatre, a better temple or two and some better villas, but never have we seen such a great collection so close together, so well preserved and signed.  Frankly I think it beats anything on offer anywhere in Europe, Italy included.  To top it all there was a really good modern museum, built in brick, Roman style, containing relics rescued from the sites, including a number of really amazing mosaics.  I think on this occasion I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
  
Wednesday was time to move on, so we continued our journey south to El Puerto de Santa Maria, on the coast on the bay of Cadiz. Here we are having a few days relaxation before moving on to our Christmas stop, Pinar San Jose near Vejer.  El Puerto is one corner of the sherry triangle, the other corners being Jerez and Sanlucar de Barrameda.  This tight little area, 25km each side, is the only area allowed to call its fortified wines Sherry.  We had an excellent visit to the Osborne Bodega last time we were here.  This time we hope to visit one of the Manzanilla Bodegas at Sanlucar, although I know before we go it will not be as good a visit for me.  The Osborne Bodega is an easy walk from the camp site, while Sanlucar is a 20m drive!  Still, we will be able to sample a few and select a couple of bottles for our Christmas tipple.

On a down note, all that cold weather last week has had its effect on Lesley.  She has developed an awful chesty cough and cold and is properly down in the dumps.  No doubt she will pass it on to me as a Christmas present.

This will probably be our last good online session before Christmas, so we wish all our readers a very happy festive season.

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