The final week: Cuenca, Albacete and Belchite
We arrived at Kiko Park Rural to find only two other units there, and they left next morning to leave us on our own! It had been similar last time we were here, probably because outside of high season the nights get very cold
here. Nevertheless it is a beautiful spot, set in a deserted village above a large reservoir. Our aim in coming up onto the central La Mancha plain was to see the city of Cuenca, which we had heard praised so often, and also to visit some of the
places where Laurie Lee had been posted in the civil war.
It was 70 miles to Cuenca, but with the clear smooth Spanish by-roads the journey was a quick one, passing first through acres of vineyards, then small cornfields and almond groves just bursting into a mass of pink flowers. Cuenca is set in the fork of the junction of the rivers Jucar and Huecar, which at this point run in deep gorges. The city is built on top of the gorge, with the buildings seeming to form a continuation of the cliff face and at times overhanging the steep drop to the rivers below, thus giving the name 'Hanging Houses'. We drove up the Huecar gorge (the Hoz del Huecar) to get the views from below, then circled the new city and started the climb into the old city. We spotted a car park half way up the hill and turned into it, to find that it had been built by hollowing out and expanding the caves in the rock. It was quite a strange feeling, driving down a long tunnel to find a space. We then took the lift up to the 7th floor, which was street level for the old town and, came out by an old clock tower, the Mangana, with splendid views down to the new part of the city. However this level, although the same height as the Cathedral square, was on a separate hill, and we had to walk down a little way before the final climb. At the entrance to the square, which was through an old arch, was the tourist information office, who provided us with a map of the old town. Then just inside the archway was a nice bar, ready to provide us with a morning coffee.
The cathedral was, to us, very un- Spanish in its architecture. The interior was very Gothic, with tall aisles much like an English cathedral. However it was furnished in Spanish style, making quite sure that the plebs in the congregation knew their place by keeping the choir and the clergy in separate areas behind huge wrought-iron screens almost like cages. There had been a major fire and collapse of a tower in the early 20th century, and presumably that is what destroyed many of the stained glass windows, as they had been replaced by modern ones, not nearly as nice and in many ways quite inappropriate.
Behind the cathedral was the Museo de Arte Abstracto, the Modern Art Gallery, which contained the usual mish mash of what, to me, are unintelligible splodges of paint and other materials. However there were a number of works by Eusebio Sempere which we enjoyed, and we were even able to buy a couple of remarkably cheap prints in the gallery shop. The real reason for visiting the gallery though is because it is in one of the best of the ‘hanging houses’ with wooden balconies right over the high cliff edge, providing superb views. Within the old house the gallery is, like so many in Spain, ultra modern and beautifully designed.
We walked down one of the streets to the Puente San Pablo, an iron bridge over the gorge, and then up to the Convento de San Pablo, an old convent which is now a Parador. Back in the old town we walked up various little alleyways to the Arco Del Bezudo, the gateway at the top of the town, where there was a row of restaurants, all very busy as it was the weekend. In spite of the cold (it was only 5 degrees up here on the central Spanish plain) the outdoor tables were full. We found a small table inside one of them and had the menu del dia. A starter of green lentils with spicy chorizo type sausages served in a bowl ,soup style. Real peasant food and warming on a cold day. Then Lesley had a swordfish steak with chips and salad while I had lamb chops, served as a rack of lamb, a portion which in England would class as a Sunday roast and be carved onto four plates! A nice slice of cheesecake followed, and the meal was washed down with a beer and bread on the side. Total cost? €13.50 a head, that’s under £10 for a three course meal with drink. Then it was back to the caves to retrieve the car, where parking cost almost as much as the meal, and back to camp.
The following day we set off for a little village called Tarazona de la Mancha, which is where Laurie Lee was first billeted when he finished his training at Albacete. He described it as a grey and dreary place. The church in the centre of town had been stripped bare to be used as an assembly room. What we found was a very attractive town square with the church in one corner, fully restored and refurnished. The chapel on the hill, where he slept on the altar, was still there, again restored, but closed up so we could not see that famous altar.
What the town did lack though, being a Sunday morning, was a cup of coffee, so we had to drive on a further 20 miles to Albacete in search of caffeine. This is where Laurie Lee did his training and where he was imprisoned as a possible spy and very nearly executed. We could see no indication of where the barracks were, but did find a preserved steam locomotive which for the sake of the story we will describe as one similar to the loco which pulled Laurie’s train into Albacete station in 1937. Albacete is a modern sprawling city but it does have a few nice old streets in the centre near the Cathedral and the Calle Mayor. We found a coffee shop open and rushed in to a poor cuppa with poor service. Had we had more patience we would have found much better ones a few streets away, including a Valor chocolate house. I suppose it was fate that I should have a coffee and a Slimming World Hi-Fi bar instead of a cup of very rich hot chocolate and churros to dip in it. Just off the Calle Major we found a lovely old arcade, the Pasaje de Lodares, reminiscent of the Leeds Victoria quarter.
The day was still young, so we decide to drive back via a little village called Alarcon, whose setting merits three stars in our Green Michelin guide. Like Cuenca it is set on a high crag, this time in a bend of the same river Jucar, rather than a fork. It is a little village with an impressive castle, preserved now as a Parador, and three huge churches, for this was the stronghold of a very wealthy duke, the Marquis of Villena, Duke of Escalona. One of the churches has been converted into a concert hall, perhaps getting the idea from Tarazona. The general feel of the village was that it was very posh, very expensive and completely lacking in life or soul. But the three stars for its setting were well justified!
After our three nights at Kiko it was time to go back towards the coast, taking the long descent to Valencia. We set off on a sunny morning with the temperature reading two degrees, and by the time we were driving past Valencia it was hitting 29 degrees. Our next halt was to be Camping Altomira at a little village called Navajas, about 15 miles inland from Sagunto. This was a site we had not visited before and had been highly recommended, except for the very high kerbs to negotiate getting on to many of the pitches. Fortunately we were there early enough to be able to pick a pitch with no kerb, for which we were both very grateful, particularly as we saw the difficulties some people were getting into manoeuvring onto their plots. I have to say that apart from the kerbs and slopes it was a very good site indeed, and certainly one we would consider revisiting.
The village of Navajas is a very smart village on the edge of a deep valley into which there fall a number of high waterfalls. There is inevitably a legend about the young lovers whose families prevented their getting together so they plunged hand in hand to their deaths.
Nearby is the town of Segorbe, which we visited primarily to shop, but were amazed to find medieval city walls and a Moorish aqueduct. We were going to take a day out from here to visit Teruel, scene of one of the last bloody fights in the civil war, but to be honest we were quite happy sitting quietly on site, so Teruel will have to wait for another day. We did get to see it as we drove round the ring road the next day on our way north.
From Navajas we took the long slow ascent up to the central plain of Aragon, a vast sparsely populated plateau where most of the buildings are intensive pig rearing sheds. Spain is one of Europe’s biggest producers of pork and ham, perhaps as a subconscious gesture of defiance to the Muslims they evicted in 1492. Our next stop was Zaragoza, a convenient half way point between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Zaragoza would also be convenient for a trip to Belchite to see the town left in ruins after the Civil War.
We had set aside the following day to visit Belchite, but as we arrived in Zaragoza early we decided to go straight there to see if we could get on the afternoon tour. The drive took us east of Zaragoza past flooded fields. Zaragoza has just had a serious soaking when the Ebro burst its banks, flooding the main square and filling the basements of the famous church of the Virgen del Pilar. In the outlying areas fields, farms and smallholdings were flooded. The road then turned south, winding over a couple of hills then straight as a die for 20 km. We arrived at the new town in time to check at the tourist office and get tickets for the 4pm tour, thus saving us a day in Zaragoza.
The history of Belchite is an odd one, but one very typical of the Civil war. Just before the main war an uprising by the army and the right wing had ousted many democratically elected left wing local councils. Belchite was one of these, and here 200 left wing republicans, communists, anarchists and trade unionists were shot. So when the Civil war actually came, a few months later, Belchite was a Nationalist town. Then when Franco was attacking Santander in Asturias the Republicans decided to attack Zaragossa as a distraction, to draw Nationalist troops away from Asturias. Belchite was on the way so the battle of Belchite was begun. It was fought from August 24 to September 6 1937 and involved a street by street battle as the70,000 strong Republican Army, with the International Brigades, gradually took control.
The inhabitants lived in the cellars of the houses. Unable to surface, living among rotting bodies and wounded soldiers with no water. Gangrene, parasites and disease were rife. Reinforcements were sent by the Nationalists from Zaragoza but they got bogged down en route. The remaining 600 residents decided to make a break for it one night, but the alarm was raised and only 100 or so finally made it to Zaragoza. It was of course an empty victory for the Republic, a huge loss of life to gain control of a town which really had no tactical significance.
Towards the end of the war, when Franco was advancing rapidly and the republicans were on the retreat, German bombers dropped four 500 kilo bombs on the town, which just about finished it off. The battles had left 3,000 dead or wounded and a ruin of the town. After the war Franco was at first going to rebuild it, but then decided that a completely new town should be built alongside the old one and the old one used to remind people of what would happen if they allowed the left to take control again. The new town was built by Republican prisoners from a nearby concentration camp, who also erected a wrought iron cross in what was left of the Plaza Mayor. Today it serves as a reminder to all, from both sides of the political spectrum, of the absolute folly and pointlessness of war.
Next day we headed north from Zaragoza, past more flooded fields and smallholdings, up the Ebro valley then past Pamplona and San Sebastian to France, to one of our regular haunts, Camping Larrouleta at Urrugne. The day gained from Zaragoza means we can have an extra day here, a day of rest for Lesley as she seems to have picked up the cough and cold she caught here last time!
Yesterday afternoon I went out on my last trip, this time to Le Petit Train de la Rhune, the rack and pinion railway that runs up the slope of the Basque symbolic mountain, Larrun, to the summit at 905 metres. The track is only about 2 miles long, but in that space it climbs over 2,400 feet at a fast walking pace. At time the ascent is so steep that facing uphill it is like sitting in a reclining chair, while facing downhill requires bracing legs. I worked out the average gradient to be one in six, but given that there are a couple of flat stretches the steepest must be up to one in four. The views from the top are stupendous. All seven Basque provinces (both French and Spanish) can be seen as well as the coast from San Sebastian almost to Bordeaux and eastwards the snow capped Pyrenees.
This will be the last episode as tomorrow we head home across France, stopping at Tours and Abbeville before the tunnel on Wednesday. It will be strange to be back home, but good to see Seaford beach and friends and family again. Thank you all for following us and for your messages of encouragement. I hope we have kindled a spirit of adventure and that you can follow in our footsteps.